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Religious Accommodation and Eliminating Conflict

April 11, 2008
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Related Topics: Discrimination and EEOC Compliance, Featured Article
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Todd Sturgill was a driver for United Parcel Service in Springdale, Arkansas. In May 2004, he joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which prohibits its members working from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. During the winter, Sturgill’s religious practices conflicted with his shift, which ended when all of his packages were delivered. UPS denied his request as inconsistent with UPS operations and a collective bargaining agreement. UPS and the union discussed transferring Sturgill to a "combination job" to accommodate his religious practices. But no such jobs were available and such positions were granted based on seniority.

Sturgill’s immediate supervisor then "split" his load, moving packages to other drivers to informally accommodate Sturgill. When Sturgill was unable to complete his route before sundown on one occasion, he returned the remaining packages to the UPS center and then was terminated for abandoning his job.

Sturgill filed a lawsuit with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas, alleging religious discrimination. A jury found that UPS failed to reasonably accommodate Sturgill, awarding him $103,722 in compensatory damages and $207,444 in punitive damages.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit held that the district court improperly instructed jurors that a reasonable accommodation "eliminates" any conflict between work and religion. Although Title VII requires employers to make "serious efforts to accommodate ... it also requires accommodation by the employee." The court affirmed compensatory damages because UPS failed to determine whether there were additional alternatives to accommodate Sturgill, but reversed the award of punitive damages. Sturgill v. United Parcel Serv. Inc., 8th Cir., No. 06-4042 (1/15/2008).

    Impact:Employers must make a serious effort to accommodate, but need not eliminate conflicts between work and religion. In all cases, an employer should examine all efforts to accommodate.

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