Our loyal blog readers may recall a post we authored in October 2013 regarding EEOC v. JBS USA, LLC (the “Nebraska Case”), where Chief Judge Laurie Smith Camp of the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska entered judgment for the employer, JBS USA, in a hotly contested religious discrimination case, finding that the employer established the affirmative defense of undue hardship since “a religious accommodation for Muslim employees [at its Grand Island, Nebraska processing facility] within the parameters requested [by the EEOC], would have caused more than a de minimis burden on JBS and on its non-Muslim employees.”
To quote former New York Yankee Yogi Berra, “It’s like Déjà vu all over again” for JBS, and this time, however, it was not as lucky. In EEOC v. JBS USA, LLC, Case No. 10-CV-02103 (d. Colo. July 17, 2015), Judge Philip A. Brimmer of the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado denied JBS’ motion for summary judgment in connection with a similar case filed by the EEOC against JBS regarding a different facility, this one in Greeley, Colorado, which was based in part on JBS’ argument that its favorable decision in the Nebraska Case collaterally estopped the EEOC from advancing its claims. Judge Brimmer denied JBS’ motion and ordered that the case proceed to trial.
The EEOC filed the lawsuit based on a conflict between JBS and several hundred Muslim employees at a beef processing facility in Greeley, Colorado who sought accommodation from JBS for their religious beliefs. Id. at 1-2. The conflict reached its height during Ramadan 2008, when employees requested that JBS accommodate their need to leave the production line to pray at or near sundown. Id. at 2. The employees and JBS were unable to come to an agreement regarding the employees’ need to pray, leading to the suspension and termination of a large number of Muslim employees based on job abandonment. Id. On August 30, 2010, the EEOC filed suit claiming that JBS discriminated against its Muslim employees on the basis of religion by engaging in a pattern or practice of retaliation, discriminatory discipline and discharge, harassment, and denying its Muslim employees reasonable religious accommodations. Id.
The Court bifurcated the case and the “Phase I” issues before the Court were: (1) the EEOC’s claim that JBS engaged in a pattern or practice of denying Muslim employees reasonable religious accommodations, (2) the EEOC’s retaliation pattern or practice claim, and (3) the EEOC’s discriminatory discipline and discharge pattern or practice claim. Id. At the close of “Phase I” discovery, JBS sought summary judgment on all three of EEOC’s Phase I claims. Id.
The Court’s Decision
JBS argued that Nebraska Case decision estopped the EEOC from: (1) claiming that its proposed accommodations of providing unscheduled breaks for prayer and moving scheduled breaks to sundown are non-burdensome; and (2) claiming that the termination and discipline of Muslim workers during Ramadan 2008 constituted a pattern or practice of retaliation and discrimination. Id. at 25.
In the Tenth Circuit, a party asserting collateral estoppel must satisfy four elements, including: (1) the issue previously decided is identical with the one presented in the action in question, (2) the prior action has been finally adjudicated on the merits, (3) the party against whom the doctrine is invoked was a party, or in privity with a party, to the prior adjudication, and (4) the party against whom the doctrine is raised had a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue in the prior action. Id.
In opposing JBS’ motion for summary, judgment, the EEOC did not dispute that the accommodations it proposed were identical to those proposed in the Nebraska Case – which they were. Id. at 26-27. Rather, the question before the Court was whether EEOC was collaterally estopped from litigating the issue of whether those accommodations result in undue hardship at the Colorado facility given that they were held to pose an undue hardship at the Nebraska facility. Id. at 27.
In denying JBS’ request to estop the EEOC from challenging the undue burden defense, the Court focused on several differences between the two cases, including different staffing levels; different collective bargaining agreements between the two facilities with different break-time clauses; and different employee requests. Id. at 27-30. Accordingly, the Court held that, “although both cases involve application of the same rule of law and involve claims that are closely related, JBS has failed to establish that the factual differences between this case and the Nebraska case are legally insignificant and the Court further finds that the balance of considerations weighs against finding that the identity of issue element is satisfied.” Id. at 30.
The Court then turned to the aspect of JBS’ motion and went through the record in painstaking detail and reached the decision that there were genuine disputes of material fact which prevented JBS from obtaining summary judgment on its undue hardship defense as well as their retaliation and discrimination claims. Although the Court acknowledged similarities between the Nebraska and Colorado facilities, “genuine disputes of material fact exist as to the feasibility of the EEOC’s proposed accommodations…thus the…EEOC has raised a genuine dispute of material fact as to the effectiveness and facial reasonableness of its proposed accommodations” as well as whether granting such accommodations would have posed an undue burden. Id. at 50 & 62.
Implications For Employers
Employers faced with a claim of religious discrimination under Title VII who refuse an accommodation request must be prepared to come forward with specific evidence demonstrating the “undue burden” that granting the request would cause. Employers must be prepared to demonstrate that the proposed accommodations pose an undue hardship in order to escape liability. That JBS obtained summary judgment in the Nebraska case, however, was not able to do so in the Colorado case, is a perfect example of the case-by-case analysis that courts utilize in deciding these type of accommodation cases, especially when an employer argues the undue hardship defense to a failure to accommodate claim under either Title VII or the ADA. A “one size fits all” approach will not pass muster and will result in employers ending up on the chopping block.