The Final Resolution of EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch After the U.S. Supreme Court’s Decision

The EEOC issued a press release on July 20, 2015 announcing that the federal appeals court has dismissed Abercrombie & Fitch’s (“AF”) appeal of the EEOC’s religious discrimination case because AF made the decision to settle the case following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling.

Below is a summary of the court proceedings.

The case arose when Samantha Elauf, then a teenager who wore a headscarf or hijab as part of her Muslim faith, applied for a job at an AF store in her hometown of Tulsa, Okla.  She was denied hire for failing to conform to the company’s “look policy,” which AF claimed banned head coverings.  Elauf then filed a charge with the EEOC, alleging religious discrimination, and the EEOC filed suit against AF charging that the company refused to hire Elauf due to her religion, and that it failed to accommodate her religious beliefs by making an exception to its “look policy” prohibiting head coverings.  The trial court granted summary judgment on liability to EEOC after holding that the evidence established that Elauf wore the hijab as part of her Muslim faith, that AF was on notice of the religious nature of her practice, and that it refused to hire her as a result.  A jury subsequently awarded Elauf damages for the discrimination.

AF appealed and a divided panel of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeal ruled in favor of AF.  The court of appeals held that AF was not on sufficient notice of Elauf’s religious practice because, despite correctly “assuming” that Elauf wore a headscarf because of her religion, the company  did not receive from Elauf explicit, verbal notice of a conflict between the “look policy” and her religious practice.  The evidence in the case included that AF never disclosed to Elauf the “no head coverings” rule in its “look policy.”  The Supreme Court granted review and reversed the Tenth Circuit’s decision.  The Supreme Court held that to prevail in a disparate-treatment (intentional discrimination) claim under Title VII, an applicant/employee need show only that his/her need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision, not that the employer had knowledge of his/her need.

Final Resolution of the Case.

In the settlement, AF agreed to pay $25,670 in damages to Elauf and $18,983 in court costs.   Elauf said, “I was a teenager who loved fashion and was eager to work for Abercrombie & Fitch.  Observance of my faith should not have prevented me from getting a job.  I am glad that I stood up for my rights, and happy that EEOC was there for me and took my complaint to the courts.”   Elauf also said that she was “grateful to the Supreme Court” for its decision and that she hopes that “other people realize that this type of discrimination is wrong and the EEOC is there to help.”

Employers Remember: Based on the Supreme Court’s decision, an applicant or employee does not have to request a religious accommodation in order to later bring a religious discrimination/failure to accommodate claim.  Instead, the applicant or employee need only show that the employer (e.g. by and through its supervisor(s)) was “motivated” by a desire to avoid accommodating the applicant’s or employee’s religious practices.  This will likely be shown based on some evidence of suspicion or knowledge on the employer’s (supervisor’s) part that religious practices were at play in the given situation. 

Takeaway:  Train your supervisors so that they know they cannot make adverse employment decisions based on an applicant’s or employee’s religion, and that the employer may be required to provide accommodations to applicants or employees for certain religious practices.