fingerBy Gerald L. Maatman Jr. and Alex W. Karasik

In EEOC v. Consol Energy, Inc., Case No. 13-CV-215 (N. D. W.Va. Feb. 9, 2015), the EEOC brought a religious discrimination suit on behalf of an employee against his coal mining employer defendants, parent company Consol Energy, Inc. and subsidiary Consolidation Coal Company.  The Commission alleged that defendants refused to provide the employee a religious accommodation by subjecting him to a biometric hand scanner for purposes of clocking in and out of work.  Specifically, the employee believed the hand scanner was used to identify and collect personal information that would be used by the Christian Anti-Christ, as described in the New Testament Book of Revelation, to identify followers with the “mark of the beast.”  Id. at 2. After the jury returned a verdict in favor of the EEOC, and awarded the $150,000 in compensatory damages and over $436,000 in front pay and back pay damages, defendants filed a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(b), a motion for a new trial under Rule 59, and a motion to amend the Court’s findings and conclusions under Rule 59.  On February 9, 2016, Judge Frederick P. Stamp, Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia denied all three of defendants’ motions.

Employers and corporate counsel should have this case on their radar when confronted with an employee who seeks a religious accommodation.

Case Background

In 2012, after defendants decided to implement a new biometric hand scanner technology to assist employees with clocking in and out, a 35-year tenured employee requested a religious exemption from the hand scanner policy, stating that he feared damnation from its use.  Id. at 2.  Despite developing a method of bypassing the hand scanner for miners who were physically incapable of scanning their hands, defendants refused to grant an exception to the employee.  After being told he would be disciplined for refusing to scan his hand, the employee subsequently retired.

The EEOC brought a civil action on the employee’s behalf, alleging that defendants’ failure to provide an accommodation to the employee amounted to religious discrimination under Title VII.  Id. at 3.  Following trial, the jury found: (1) that parent company Consol was the employee’s employer; (2) that the employee had a “sincere religious belief that conflicted with an employment requirement”; (3) that the employee “informed his employer of this belief”; (4) that the employee “was subjected to an adverse employment action . . . by being . . . constructively discharged by his employer for his refusal to comply with the conflicting employment requirement”; (5) that defendants did not provide the employee a reasonable accommodation; and (6) that the accommodations proposed by the EEOC at trial would not have “resulted in more than a de minimis cost” to the defendants.  Id.  The jury awarded $150,000 in compensatory damages and over $436,000 in front pay and back pay damages.  Defendants thereafter filed a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(b), a motion for a new trial under Rule 59, and a motion to amend the Court’s findings and conclusions under Rule 59.

The Ruling

Judge Stamp denied all three motions brought by defendants.  In their renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(b), defendants argued (1) that the EEOC failed to present sufficient evidence to state a prima facie case of religious discrimination; and (2) that there was insufficient evidence to support the jury’s finding that the parent company Consol was the employee’s employer.  The Court rejected these arguments, finding that the EEOC presented sufficient evidence that the employee repeatedly requested a religious accommodation, which was denied despite defendants’ awareness of a reasonable accommodation, and that parent company Consol exercised excessive control and made employment decisions regarding the employees of the subsidiary defendant Consolidation such that it was his employer.  Id. at 8-9.

Defendants also moved for a new trial pursuant to Rule 59, arguing that the Court made various legal errors and that the jury’s damage award was excessive so as to make the judgment a miscarriage of justice.  Id. at 10.  The Court had earlier granted the EEOC’s motion in limine to exclude all evidence regarding the grievance process contained in the United Mine Workers of America’s (“UMWA”) collective bargaining agreement with Consol, which allowed the employee to file a grievance with the union and seek arbitration before he could be discharged.  Defendants argued that the evidence was relevant for several reasons, asserting that its exclusion was prejudicial because the jury was misled into believing that the employee had no option but to retire.  Id. at 11.  The Court rejected this argument, noting that whether defendants’ enforcement of their progressive discipline policy would have resulted in the employee’s eventual discharge, even after arbitration through the grievance process, had no bearing on whether they deliberately denied the employee a religious accommodation.  Id. at 12.  Additionally, the Court rejected defendants’ arguments that the jury instructions and jury’s award were improper, holding that the jury award was supported by the employee’s testimony and his wife’s testimony about the adverse effect of his retirement.  Id. at 29.

Finally, in their motion to amend the findings regarding back pay and front pay damages, defendants argued that the Court’s findings regarding the employee’s efforts to mitigate damages were not supported by the evidence.  The Court rejected this argument, referencing how the employee reasonably mitigated his damages by eventually accepting another job, even though it was lower-paying and in a different industry.  Id. at 32.  Further, defendants argued that the Court’s inclusion of lost pension benefits in front pay damages was erroneous because the Court erred in finding that the pension benefits that the employee had already received since his retirement were from a collateral source and should not offset damages; and that the Court should reconsider its calculation of front pay damages since it resulted in a windfall for the employee.  Id. at 34.  The Court rejected these contentions too. It reasoned that not off-setting the employee’s damages with the pension benefits he had already received would not result in a windfall.  Id. at *-40.  Accordingly, the Court denied defendants’ renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law, motion for a new trial, and motion to amend the Court’s findings and conclusions.

Implications For Employers

The unique factual circumstances of this case, and the jury’s subsequent findings, should alert employers that they must seriously consider any and all religious accommodation requests.  Given that defendants here easily could have allowed the employee to use their already-established alternative to the hand scanner system, granting this accommodation would have saved the employer a significant amount of time and money related to the subsequent litigation.  In sum, employers should take an open-minded and thorough approach when assessing any and all religious accommodation requests in order to avoid potentially costly EEOC litigation.

Readers can also find this post on our EEOC Countdown blog here.