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August 04, 2010

Past practice of using seniority in bidding for shift assignment trumps Sabbath observer’s request for work schedule adjustment

Past practice of using seniority in bidding for shift assignment trumps Sabbath observer’s request for work schedule adjustment
Balint v Carson City [Nevada], CA9, 144 F.3d 1225

Lisette Balint had been selected for employment in the detention center of the Carson City, Nevada Sheriff Department and was to start “on a swing shift” effective Friday, March 31, 1995. However, Balint was a member of a church that barred all forms of secular work during the period its members observed as the Sabbath -- Friday night through Saturday night.

After being selected, Balint told the department that she could not work “during her Sabbath” and requested that her schedule be adjusted to accommodate her religious practice. When the head of the detention department informed Balint that there could be no accommodation, she withdrew her employment application.

In her original application for employment Balint said that she “was willing to work swing-shift, graveyard, weekends and holidays.” She did not mention any religious or other objections to working on certain shifts.

As a “past practice,” Carson City deputy sheriffs participate in a semi-annual bidding system in which the twelve or thirteen deputies assigned to the jail bid for shifts in the order of their seniority.

Contending that Title VII required that the department accommodate her religious needs, Balint sued. The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, 9th Circuit disagreed, reversing a lower court ruling in Balint’s favor.

The Court commenced its analysis with the observation that Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of religion and that the employer has a duty to accommodate a current or prospective employee’s religious practices unless the accommodation would cause “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business,” citing 42 U.S.C. Sect. 2000e(j).

The applicant or employee must establish a prima facie case of unlawful discrimination. If he or she does so, the burden shifts to the employer to prove that it either initiated good faith efforts to accommodate the employee or that any accommodation would create an undue hardship on the employer.

The department argued, and the court agreed, that it had “a legitimate seniority system, enacted without discriminatory intent” and any attempt to accommodate Balint would, as a matter of law, cause undue hardship.

The Circuit Court concluded that because the Sheriff’s Department had followed a nondiscriminatory seniority-based system for assigning shifts, it had no duty to accommodate Balint, “even if such accommodation would have no more than a de minimis [slight] impact. The court ruled that an employer is not required to alter an existing, bona fide seniority-based shift-bidding system to accommodate an employee’s religious needs.

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