Appeals court reverses lower court finding against religious discrimination, upholds dismissal of retaliatory firing claims

By Anna Aguillard | Sep 1, 2014

NEW ORLEANS – The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has partly reversed and partly affirmed a district court’s decision in a suit dealing with Title VII religious discrimination and retaliation claims.

The plaintiff, Lois M. Davis, filed suit against her former employee, Fort Bend County, Texas, claiming that her termination constituted religious discrimination and retaliation.

Davis was hired as a desktop support supervisor by Fort Bend in 2007, and was supervised by Charles Cook, the company’s IT director. In 2010, she claimed that Cook sexually harassed and assaulted her and these allegations soon led to Cook’s resignation. After Cook resigned, Davis claims that Cook’s “personal friend and fellow church member,” Kenneth Ford, who was also employed by Fort Bend, began retaliating against her.

According to Davis, these retaliations culminated in 2011, when Fort Bend planned an installation of new personal computers on July 4. Davis asked to be excused, citing a “special” church community service project as a religious commitment. She arranged for a volunteer replacement, and planned to arrive to work after the service. However, Kenneth Ford denied her request, and when she did not show up, he terminated her employment.

Davis then filed suit against Fort Bend, alleging retaliation and religious discrimination under Title VII. The District Court ruled against her on all claims, and Davis appealed.

The appellate court affirmed the District Court’s grant regarding Davis’s retaliation claims, deciding that Davis did not present sufficient evidence that Ford’s actions were “significant” and not “trivial.” Citing Burlington N. & Santa Fe Ry. Co. v White, the Court argued that a plaintiff must prove that the acts in question are not “petty slights, minor annoyances or a simple lack of good manners.”

According to the lower court, Davis failed to prove that Ford’s actions caused her suffering or embarrassment. The court also determined that Davis failed to argue that her termination was an act of retaliation for her previous claims against Charles Cook. Instead, she only argued that her termination was an act of religious discrimination.

However, the appeals court reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment regarding Davis’s religious discrimination claims. The district court previously decided that there was no genuine dispute of the facts of Davis’s “religious obligation” – agreeing with Fort Bend which argued that “being an avid and active member of a church does not elevate every activity associated with that church into a legally protectable religious practice.” The district court initially decided that Davis’s “request” to attend the special service was not a religious conviction.

The appeals court reversed this decision, ruling that the lower court erred in focusing on the nature of the activity instead of how “sincerely” Davis was devoted to the activity. In order for an act of religious commitment to be protected by Title VII, it must be sincerely held; and the appeals court decided that the district court must “refrain from making credibility determinations” on whether or not a particular belief is sincere.

The Fifth Circuit further decided that the district court erred in deciding that Davis’s absence created an “undue hardship” for the company. Fort Bend argued that her absence left them shorthanded and caused other employees to work harder, but the appeals court disagreed. According to the ruling, because Davis found a “volunteer” to replace her, and did not force the company to find an employee substitute, she did not cause Fort Bend to experience any inconvenience.

The case was heard by Justice Jerry E. Smith, Justice Jacques L. Wiener Jr. and Justice Edward C. Prado.

In the dissenting opinion, Justice Smith agreed with the district court’s decision that Davis’s commitment to attend the special church service was not a religious belief.  He distinguished between commitments that are inherently “religious in nature,” and those that are “merely a personal preference;” and opined that Davis’s church service project did not stem from religious motivation, but from a personal social commitment.

Smith wrote that the majority erred in focusing on the “sincerity” of the commitment, because even personal commitments can be sincerely held. Instead of focusing on how strongly Davis held her commitment, Smith wrote that the court should have focused on the nature of the commitment. He upheld that religious commitments center around “life, purpose, and death,” which Davis’s service project did not. According to the dissent, although Davis may have been sincerely devoted to the commitment, it still is only an activity, and not a religious belief.

Case No. 13-20610.

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