Tuesday, September 1, 2015

“Sign of the Beast” Lawsuit - Part II

 


I’ll admit the title of this post sounds like the title of a bad horror movie, and for the owners of a West Virginia coal mine, a religious discrimination/failure to accommodate lawsuit is turning into a real-life legal horror show. The federal judge in the case last week granted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s ("EEOC") motion for additional damages, bringing the verdict against the employer to $586,860 in lost wages, benefits and compensatory damages.

In my previous post, "Sign of the Beast" Hand Scanning Case Provides Valuable Lesson to Employers, I related how an employer’s use of a high-tech hand scanning device to keep track of payroll and stay in compliance with the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA") resulted in a large dollar jury verdict in a religious discrimination case, as well as continued scrutiny from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). [EEOC v. Consol Energy, Inc., N.D. W.Va.]
 
One employee, Beverly H.R. Butcher Jr., told his supervisor that he could not comply with the hand scanning policy because he believed the technology has a connection to the "mark of the beast" and the Antichrist, as alluded to in the Book of Revelation in the New Testament of the Bible. As a proposed reasonable accommodation, the company offered to allow Butcher to scan his left hand with his palm up, which he declined. Butcher resigned, stating that he was doing so involuntarily. He brought his complaint to the EEOC, which filed suit on his behalf against the company, alleging that Consol had violated Title VII by failing to reasonably accommodate Butcher’s sincerely held religious beliefs.
 
In January 2015, a jury ruled in Butcher’s favor and awarded $150,000.00 in compensatory damages. However, that was not the end of the case. In a post-trial motion, the EEOC sought an additional $413,000 in front and back pay.
 
On August 21, 2015, U.S. District Judge Frederick P. Stamp awarded Butcher an additional $436,860.74 in front and back pay, even more than the EEOC had originally requested. The Judge also ordered a three year injunction against Consol Energy, prohibiting the company from denying reasonable accommodations regarding the use of the hand scanning system. The Court also ordered that the company provide training to employees on religious accommodation. Not surprisingly, the company plans to appeal the verdict in the case.
 
This case should serve as a serious wake-up call to employers about recognizing religious accommodation issues under Title VII, and engaging in the interactive process of reaching an accommodation if it can be done without undue hardship. Just from the facts of this case, it’s clear no real attempt was made to accommodate Butcher, and it does not appear that the company took the issue seriously.
 
The need for employers to train supervisors on religious accommodation was recently highlighted in the recent Supreme Court decision in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc. In my post Ignorance is not Bliss: Religious Discrimination after the Supreme Court’s Decision in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, I discussed how the Court’s ruling now imposes a heightened standard on employers, and how the EEOC’s new guidelines for accommodating religious garb can serve as a roadmap to hopefully avoiding the type of lawsuit and verdict discussed above.
 
Mark Fijman is a labor and employment attorney with Phelps Dunbar, LLP, which has offices in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Texas, Alabama, North Carolina and London. To view his firm bio, click here. He can be reached at (601) 360-9716 and by e-mail at fijmanm@phelps.com