Jurors awarded $21 million to plaintiff in a religious discrimination lawsuit after she, a devout Christian, was fired from her hotel dishwasher position, in part for refusal to work Sundays. As our Los Angeles employment attorneys can explain, an employer who fails to make reasonable accommodations for a worker’s sincerely-held beliefs can be found in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
At the crux of whether an accommodation is reasonable is if the requested accommodation would impose an undue hardship, defined as a more than minimal burden on the business. A religious practice can be considered “sincerely-held” to a person even if it’s newly-adopted, not observed with consistency or varies from the commonly-followed tenants of the religion.
The 60-year-old mother-of-six plaintiff in this case, in addition to being a dishwasher and immigrant from Haiti, is part of a Catholic missionary church that aids the poor. According to her federal lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court in Miami, she informed her employer – a posh downtown hotel – that she informed her employer of the need for accommodation when she first started her job, and specifically cited her religious beliefs. Sunday, according to Christian religious texts, is supposed to be a day of rest and devotion to God.
Arguing violation of the federal Civil Rights Act, she alleged her employer of 10 years initially did accommodate her request – for seven years. This helped to demonstrate that accommodation was possible, and was not an undue burden on the business operation. After seven years, a manager told her she would need to start working Sundays. She declined, saying her Sundays were dedicated to God for religious reasons. For a time, the restaurant allowed her to swap days with co-workers. However, when there were days other workers could not or would not switch shifts with her, supervisors began writing her up for absenteeism when she failed to arrive at work those days. Ultimately, they fired her for “misconduct” and unexcused absences after she failed to report to work on those days.
Jurors awarded her $21 million in damages, which included $35,000 for back wages and $500,000 for mental anguish and emotional pain. In Florida, punitive damages in court cases are capped, so she will not technically receive $21 million, but her employment attorney estimates she may receive as much as $500,000. (Punitive damages are those awarded to penalize the employer, while compensatory damages, such as back pay and mental anguish, are awarded as compensation for losses, tangible and intangible.)
The company intends to appeal, saying it made multiple concessions and accommodations for the employee, both for religious and personal commitments, over the course of a decade. The hotel chain argued it wasn’t aware plaintiff was a missionary and did not understand why she requested every Sunday off work.
As Los Angeles employment attorneys, we know many of the workers who press these cases are doing so for reasons that exceed their own suffering. Civil court is one of the few places where the playing field is equal between employers and employees when it comes to resolving grievances. For many large companies especially, those larger damage awards serve as a deterrence to unlawful behavior.
Cases like this are not just about righting the wrong suffered by an individual employee, but establishing a standard that all employers will take into consideration henceforth.
Contact the employment attorneys at Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Orange County, Riverside and Los Angeles. Call 949.375.4734.
Miami Hotel Dishwasher Forced to Work Sundays Awarded $21 Million by Jury, Jan. 16, 2019, NBC-6 Miami
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