Employee Granted Large Award for Employer’s Refusal to Grant Religious Accommodation
February 15, 2019
Lía Fiol-Matta, Esq., and Ty Hyderally, Esq.
A dishwasher in Florida was awarded $21.5 million last month for being made to work on Sundays despite her request for time off due to religious reasons. Marie Jean Pierre worked at the Conrad Hotel in Miami for almost 10 years before she was fired in March 2016, allegedly for misconduct, negligence and unexcused absences. When hired, Pierre informed the hotel that she could not work on Sundays because of her religious beliefs, but they scheduled her to work on Sundays anyway. The employer allowed her not to work Sundays from 2009 until October 2015, when it again started scheduling Pierre for Sunday shifts. Pierre gave her manager a letter from her pastor, stating that working on Sunday would violate her religious beliefs; the manager threw the letter away. Pierre then arranged with coworkers to swap shifts in order to avoid working on Sundays until her employer fired her. Pierre then filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and a lawsuit in federal court. Jean Pierre v. Park Hotels & Resort Inc., No. 1:2017cv21955 – (S.D. Fla. 2017).
Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Pub.L. 88-352, 78 Stat. 241 (1964), an employer must reasonably accommodate employees’ religious practices. Pierre’s employer accommodated her for many years and had no reason to stop doing so, yet demanded that she work on Sundays instead of swapping shifts with willing coworkers. After Pierre missed six Sundays, the hotel charged Pierre with absenteeism and fired her. The jury decided the case in Pierre’s favor, setting damages to be paid by Park Hotel and Resorts, who took ownership of the hotel from Hilton Worldwide Holdings in 2017, at $21.5 million. Pierre is likely to receive a figure closer to $300,000, though, because punitive damages are capped in federal court. The jury was unaware of this limit on punitive damages, and awarded Pierre $36,000 in lost wages, $500,000 in emotional distress damages, and $21,000,000 in punitive damages.
In addition to the protections federal law affords individuals facing religious discrimination, employees in New Jersey and New York are protected by strong antidiscrimination statutes. New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (“LAD”), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1 et seq., protects employees who belong to a particular religious faith, are non-believers, are associated with a person of a particular religion, are perceived to be of a particular religious faith even if that perception is mistaken, or have certain strongly held moral or ethical beliefs, from being discriminated against in the workplace. The LAD protects workers’ rights to attend religious services, such as in the Pierre case, and observe religious practices, such as wearing distinctive clothing or apparel required by a person’s religious beliefs. Employers must honor requests for a religious accommodation, unless the accommodation would create an undue hardship for the employer or the employer is a religious association or organization that may use religious affiliation as a job requirement.
In New York State, protections against religious discrimination are governed by the New York State Human Rights Law, NY Exec L Art. 15 §296 (2015), that prohibits job applicants and employees from being treated differently or harassed because of their religious beliefs or practices. As under federal law, employers are required by the New York State Human Rights Law to reasonably accommodate employees in their sincerely held religious beliefs, unless doing so would create an undue hardship on the employer. Reasonable accommodations may include schedule changes, allowing the observance of holy days, exceptions to dress codes and the selection of a work location for prayer. In addition to the State antidiscrimination law, residents of New York City are protected against religious discrimination by the NYC Human Rights Law, Title 8 of the Administrative Code of the City of New York.
Individuals who believe they have been discriminated against or harassed on the job because of their religious beliefs or practices are encouraged to seek the advice of an attorney who focuses in discrimination matters.
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