EEOC Wins Religious Discrimination Lawsuit Against Employer for Constructive Termination

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees from workplace discrimination on the basis of their race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. In addition, Title VII requires an employer to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs and observances.

In a religious accommodation case under Title VII, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld a judgment for $150,000 in compensatory damages and over $436,000 in front pay, back pay, and lost benefits awarded to a former coal miner in West Virginia. The appellate court agreed with the trial court that the evidence showed that the miner’s employer failed to accommodate his religious beliefs and was guilty of a constructive discharge of the employee, in violation of Title VII. The opinion was issued on June 12, 2017, in the case EEOC v. Consol Energy, Inc.

The EEOC May Bring a Lawsuit against an Employer

The EEOC sued Consol Energy on behalf of coal miner Beverly Butcher, a former Consol employee. Occasionally, the EEOC itself will bring a lawsuit on behalf of an aggrieved employee if it believes it has a strong case against the employer. Typically, however, the EEOC issues a right to sue letter to the employee (known as the claimant) that allows the claimant himself/herself to bring a lawsuit in court. If you have received a right to sue letter from the EEOC, contact an employment law lawyer at Kilgore & Kilgore to learn the best way to proceed with your case. Please click here to reach out to us Contact an Employment Law Lawyer.

Hand Scanner Used by Employer to Record Work Hours and Attendance of Employees

In 2012, Consol Energy installed a biometric hand scanner at the West Virginia coal mine where Butcher had worked for nearly 40 years. Consol implemented this hand scanner system in order to improve its ability to monitor employee attendance and work hours. Each worker was required to scan his/her right hand when checking in or out of a work shift. The shape of each worker’s hand was linked to that worker’s personnel number.

Employee’s Religious Beliefs Prevented His Use of the Hand Scanner

Butcher is a life-long, devout evangelical Christian, an ordained minister, and an associate pastor. Use of the hand scanner on Butcher would have threatened his core religious commitments. At trial, Butcher testified that he believed that the use of Consol’s hand scanner on either of his hands would conflict with his closely held religious beliefs.

Workplace Discrimination Arose from Accommodations Made to Other Employees with Hand Injuries, But Not to Mr. Butcher

While Consol resisted accommodating Butcher’s religious beliefs, this same employer was making accommodations for two other employees who had hand injuries that prohibited their use of the hand scanner. Consol permitted those two employees to enter their personnel numbers on a keypad. Consol refused to make the same accommodation for Butcher. This employer decided that Butcher would be required to scan his left hand. The manufacturer of the hand scanner had provided Consol with a letter in which it offered its own religious explanation that scanning Butcher’s left hand, as opposed to his right hand, would not conflict with his religious beliefs. Consol made it clear to Butcher that he would be required to scan his left hand or be subject to disciplinary action. In response, Butcher tendered his retirement from the company.

The EEOC Prevailed at Trial against Consol

The jury found that all three elements of a Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 reasonable accommodation claim were satisfied by the evidence. First, Butcher had sincere religious beliefs that conflicted with Consol’s required use of the hand scanner. Second, Butcher informed Consol of this conflict. Third, Consol engaged in a constructive discharge of Butcher for his refusal to comply with its directions. In affirming the denial of Consol’s post-verdict motion for judgment as a matter of law, the Fourth Circuit found that the evidence at trial fully supported the jury’s verdict in favor of Butcher.

Appellate Court Ruled in Plaintiff’s Favor

On appeal, Consol continued to rely on the letter from the manufacturer of the hand scanner to argue that the mark he didn’t want is associated with only the right, not the left hand. Thus, Consol was convinced that Butcher’s religious beliefs, though sincere, were mistaken. However, the Fourth Circuit explained in its opinion that it is not “Consol’s place as an employer, nor ours as a court, to question the correctness or even the plausibility of Butcher’s religious understandings.” The court stated that all that matters for satisfying the first element of a reasonable accommodation claim is that Butcher’s religious beliefs are sincerely held and conflict with Consol’s employment requirement.

Constructive Discharge is a Term Used When an Employee Is Forced to Resign Because of Intolerable Working Conditions

The Fourth Circuit also found that there was sufficient evidence at trial to show Butcher’s constructive discharge. A constructive discharge occurs when an employee is subjected to circumstances that are so intolerable that a reasonable person would resign. The appellate court determined that there was substantial evidence that Butcher was put in an intolerable position when Consol refused to accommodate his religious objection to the hand scanner.

Workplace Discrimination Occurs in Many Different Types of Situations

Perhaps you have suffered from a workplace discrimination, such as a wrongful termination, retaliation for making a benefits claim, or some other adverse action by your employer. If so, please click here Contact an Employment Law Attorney at Kilgore & Kilgore for a free evaluation of the facts of your case.

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