The New Jersey Appellate Division has ruled that a lawsuit against the New Jersey Department of Corrections (NJDOC) can proceed for failure to accommodate a trainee’s religious practice.
In July 2016, Marven Roseus, a member of the Israel United in Christ faith, applied to become a NJDOC corrections officer. While attending an orientation meeting, Roseus informed lieutenants that his religion prohibits him from shaving his head or face. Roseus submitted a religious accommodation request which included a statement from an elder in his church explaining that his religion requires that he not shave either his head or face.
After submitting his request, Roseus arrived for his first day of training, and was told that he was not “properly shaven.” Even though Roseus explained that his request for a religious accommodation, Roseus was written up and dismissed from training.
On January 9, 2017, Roseus filed a complaint against the State of New Jersey and the NJDOC alleging discriminatory practices and a failure to accommodate a sincerely held religious belief, in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD) which prohibits employers from imposing a condition on employees that “would require a person to violate or forego a sincerely held religious practice or observance” unless, “after engaging in bona fide effort, the employer demonstrates that it is unable to reasonably accommodate the employee’s religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.” N.J.S.A. 10:5-12(q)(1).
The State and NJDOC moved to dismiss Roseus’ complaint, and the trial court dismissed the case on June 30, 2017.
Appellate Court’s Decision
The Appellate Division ruled that Roseus’ complaint should be reinstated finding that there was no evidence the NJDOC acted in “a bona fide effort” or that it is “unable to reasonably accommodate” his religious practice without a “undue hardship.” An “undue hardship”, as defined by the NJLAD, must be one requiring “unreasonable expense or difficulty, unreasonable interference with the safe or efficient operation of the workplace or a violation of a bona fide seniority system or a violation of any provision of a bona fide collective bargaining agreement.” N.J.S.A. 10:5-12(q)(3)(a).
In its decision, the Appellate Division distinguished a 2008 ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Valdes v. New Jersey. In Valdes, an applicant sought to become a corrections officer, and sought an accommodation to not shave his beard based upon his religious beliefs. This request was initially denied, but the NJDOC eventually granted an accommodation and allowed the applicant to retain his facial hair so long as it was not longer than one-eighth of an inch. When the applicant did not shave his beard to the agreed upon length, he was terminated. The Appellate Division points out that although seemingly similar to the facts at hand, Valdes was distinguishable in a number of ways, including, most notably, that an accommodation was offered in Valdes, whereas Roseus was offered no such accommodation.
The Appellate Division also noted that because Roseus sufficiently alleged that the NJDOC has previously granted accommodations to its grooming policy, Roseus was entitled to discovery to explore whether there was a bona fide effort made to accommodate his religious beliefs. Moreover, the State and NJDOC did not explain the reasons for the grooming policy, nor did they demonstrate they attempted to accommodate Roseus.
This case serves as a reminder that employers must engage in the interactive process in order to determine whether or not an employee’s sincerely held religious belief requires an accommodation in the workplace. Accommodation requests often relate to change in work schedules, exceptions to dress and grooming policies, or time for religious expression or practice while at work. In many cases, employers who face costly litigation are those where supervisors refuse an accommodation request without exploring other ways to accommodate the employee. Employers should also take pro-active steps to ensure they have the following:
- A compliant Anti-Harassment Policy that covers religion and creed.
- An accommodation policy that covers religious beliefs, practices or observances.
- Train Managers and Supervisors on how to document and respond to requests for a religious accommodation and address complaints about religious harassment.
For more information on what your company can do to ensure compliance with religious accommodations in the workplace, please contact John C. Petrella, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Employment Litigation Practice Group, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at email@example.com, or 973-533-0777.