Supreme Court Rules Employer’s Motive (Not Knowledge) Decides Disparate-Treatment Claims

On June 1, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States decided whether an employer’s obligations under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are triggered only when an applicant has informed the employer of his or her need for an accommodation of a religious practice. In an 8-to-1 decision, the Court ruled that an applicant with a disparate-treatment claim is not required to show that an employer had knowledge of his or her need for an accommodation. Instead, the applicant need only show that the need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision. In an opinion delivered by Justice Scalia, the Court stated that “the rule for disparate-treatment claims based on a failure to accommodate a religious practice is straightforward: An employer may not make an applicant’s religious practice, confirmed or otherwise, a factor in employment decisions.” Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., No. 14–86, Supreme Court of the United States (June 1, 2015). 


Abercrombie & Fitch, a retail clothing, store maintained a “Look Policy” that applied to all sales floor employees. Under the policy, employees were not permitted to wear black clothing or caps. Samantha Elauf, a Muslim who wears a head scarf, applied for a job at a Tulsa, Oklahoma Abercrombie store. Heather Cooke, the store’s assistant manager, interviewed Elauf and gave her a rating that qualified her to be hired. 

To clarify whether wearing a head scarf would conflict with Abercrombie’s policy prohibiting employees from wearing caps, Cooke consulted with her district manager, Randall Johnson. Cooke told Johnson that Elauf wore her head scarf because she is Muslim. She alleges that Johnson told her that Elauf should not be hired because wearing a head scarf would violate the Look Policy.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed suit claiming that by refusing to hire Elauf, Abercrombie had failed to provide her a reasonable religious accommodation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The district court ruled in favor of the EEOC. However, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and ruled in favor of Abercrombie.

The Supreme Court’s Decision 

In an 8-to-1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the Tenth Circuit misinterpreted Title VII’s requirements in granting summary judgment in favor of Abercrombie. Under the “disparate treatment” or “intentional discrimination” provision of Title VII, 42 U. S. C. §2000e–2(a)(1), employers are prohibited from refusing to hire an individual because of his or her religion. Abercrombie had argued that liability under this provision requires a showing that the employer has “actual knowledge” of the applicant’s need for an accommodation. The Court disagreed, holding that an applicant need only show that his or her need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision.

According to the Court, §2000e–2(a)(1) does not impose a knowledge requirement and instead “prohibits certain motives, regardless of the state of the actor’s knowledge.” According to the Court, 

An employer who has actual knowledge of the need for an accommodation does not violate Title VII by refusing to hire an applicant if avoiding that accommodation is not his motive. Conversely, an employer who acts with the motive of avoiding accommodation may violate Title VII even if he has no more than an unsubstantiated suspicion that accommodation would be needed.


In arriving at this conclusion, the Court also rejected Abercrombie’s alternative arguments: (1) that a claim based on a failure to accommodate an applicant’s religious practice must be raised as a disparate-impact claim, not a disparate-treatment claim; and (2) that Title VII limits disparate-treatment claims to only those employer policies that treat religious practices less favorably than similar secular practices. The Court thus reversed the Tenth Circuit’s judgment in favor of Abercrombie and remanded the case.

Practical Impact

According to David D. Powell, a shareholder in the Denver office of Ogletree Deakins, “Based on the Supreme Court’s decision, lower trial courts will be more willing to infer a discriminatory motive if the circumstances demonstrate the employer somehow ‘should have known’ or had constructive knowledge of the applicant’s need for an accommodation. The decision also requires employers to take a harder look at their appearance policies, especially when those policies may impact an applicant or employee who is required to wear certain items of clothing or dress in a certain way because of his or her religion. Employers need to ask themselves if the policy is really important enough to maintain. At a minimum, employers need to ensure that their management level employees are well versed in Title VII’s requirements and know how to respond when confronted with an applicant or employee who is dressed in a way that may conflict with a workplace requirement.” 

According to Margaret Carroll Alli, a shareholder in the Detroit (Metro) office of Ogletree Deakins, “The Supreme Court has succinctly reminded employers to once again look carefully at the reason or basis for a challenged employment decision. Religious practices and work rules often collide on the job. The Court has made clear that mere suspicions and unconfirmed assumptions about religious practices may trigger Title VII liability. Employers can generally avoid this quagmire by not guessing whether an employee (or applicant) is religious or will need a change in a work requirement for religious reasons. Best to wait for the employee or applicant to ask for something and let the employee or applicant explain if the accommodation is needed because of a sincerely held religious belief or practice.”

Hera S. Arsen, Ph.D. is managing editor of firm publications and is based in the Torrance, California office of Ogletree Deakins.