By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis:  In EEOC v. JBS USA, LLC, No. 10-CV-2103, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 13012 (D. Colo. Jan. 25, 2021), an EEOC-initiated lawsuit alleging a meatpacking engaged in a pattern or practice of discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, and religion, the U.S. District Court in Colorado denied the EEOC’s motion to reconsider the previous dismissal of the EEOC’s pattern or practice claims, thereby rejecting the Commission’s argument that a recent Tenth Circuit decision changed Title VII religious-accommodation law. 

This latest ruling in an 11-year legal battle brings the employer/defendant one step closer to defeating one of the largest pending EEOC pattern or practice of discrimination lawsuits. The latest ruling is instructive for corporate counsel dealing with EEOC litigation issues.

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As we have previously blogged about (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), the EEOC filed its lawsuit August 30, 2010, alleging a pattern or practice of discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, and religion, as well as raising claims of retaliation.  On August 8, 2011, the Court issued an order bifurcating the case.  Id. at *5.  Phase I of the trial was to address three issues, including: (1) whether defendant engaged in a pattern or practice of unlawfully denying Muslim employees reasonable religious accommodations to pray and break their Ramadan fast from December 2007 through July 2011; (2) whether defendant engaged in a pattern or practice of disciplining employees on the basis of their race, national origin, or religion during Ramadan 2008; and (3) whether defendant engaged in a pattern or practice of retaliating against a group of black, Muslim, Somali employees for engaging in protected activity in opposition to discrimination during Ramadan 2008. The Court presided over a 16-day trial for Phase I from August 7 to August 31, 2017.  Id. at *6.

On September 24, 2018, the Court issued its Phase I Findings.  Id.  It found that: (1) while defendant had denied Muslim employees a reasonable religious accommodation to pray during Ramadan (other than in 2009 and 2010), the EEOC had not made a requisite showing that any employees suffered a materially adverse employment action as a result of defendant’s policy denying unscheduled prayer breaks; (2) the EEOC had failed to prove that defendant’s disciplinary actions during Ramadan 2008 were motivated by a discriminatory animus; and (3) the EEOC had failed to demonstrate that defendant’s discipline of employees during Ramadan 2008 was for a retaliatory purpose rather for engaging in a work stoppage.  As a result, the Court dismissed the EEOC’s Phase I pattern or practice claims.  Id. at *7.  The EEOC moved the Court to reconsider.

The Court’s Decision

The Court denied the EEOC’s Second Motion for Partial Reconsideration of the Phase I Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law.  The EEOC had asked the Court to reconsider its findings pursuant to the Tenth Circuit’s recent en banc decision in Exby-Stolley v. Bd. of Cnty. Comm’rs, 979 F.3d 784 (10th Cir. 2020), a disability-accommodation case brought under the ADA.  The EEOC argued that Exby-Stolley was an intervening change in Title VII religious-accommodation law.

First, the Court opined that Exby-Stolley was an ADA case where the jury was instructed that, in order for the plaintiff to make out an ADA accommodation claim, the plaintiff had to show that she had suffered an adverse employment action.  Id. at *8-9.  In holding that the ADA did not require that plaintiff prove that she suffered an adverse employment action, the Tenth Circuit compared the elements of an ADA accommodation claim with a religious accommodation claim brought under Title VII.  Exby-Stolley explained that, while ADA claims do not require that a plaintiff show an adverse employment action, in Title VII religious-accommodation cases, the prima facie case requires the employee to show among other things that “he or she was fired or not hired for failure to comply with the conflicting employment requirement.”  Id. at *9 (quoting Exby-Stolley 979 F.3d at 739).

Applying Exby-Stolley here, the Court explained that in its Phase I Findings, and as the Tenth Circuit stated in Exby-Stolley, the adverse employment action requirement for Title VII religious-accommodation claims, “is not new.”  Id. at *10.  The Court supported its position by quoting Exby-Stolley, and noted that, “In fact, the Tenth Circuit explained that the fact ‘[t]hat a disparate treatment claim — under Title VII or the ADA — would require an adverse employment action is wholly unremarkable.’” Id. at * (quoting Exby-Stolley, 9 F.3d at 793 n.3).

Accordingly, the Court held that the law concerning religious accommodation claims under Title VII remained the same as it was before the Exby-Stolley decision, and therefore denied the EEOC’s second motion for reconsideration.

Implications For Employers

This ruling represents the latest chapter in the seemingly never-ending EEOC v. JBS saga, where the employer once again received a favorable ruling from the Court.  In essence, the Court rejected the EEOC’s attempt to apply post-dismissal case law to change the Court’s mind about its previous ruling.

For employers who are mired in year-long litigation battles with the EEOC, this ruling illustrates that one of the Commission’s strategies will be to closely monitor dockets and seek to overturn prior adverse rulings when new case law precedent provides a window for that opportunity.  Employers would be prudent to similarly monitor court rulings – even after a court dismisses part of a case – to stay ahead of the EEOC’s anticipated tactics.

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