EEOC v. Thompson Contracting, No. 08-1626 (4th Cir. June 25, 2009)

By Paul Mollica

The Fourth Circuit today reverses (in an unpublished order) summary judgment in a Title VII religious discrimination case involving a Sabbatarian truck driver. Whether the termination was the result of missing four Saturdays at work, or because a failed drug test and a collision with the company vehicle, presents a genuine issue of material fact.

EEOC v. Thompson Contracting, No. 08-1626 (4th Cir. June 25, 2009): The claimant, described as a Hebrew Israelite, was hired in June 2004 on an understanding that he could not work on Saturdays, despite that the employee handbook specifically prescribes that drivers (and others) are expected to perform Saturday work.  He missed three straight Saturdays in December 2004 when he was ordered to attend work.  The employer cautioned him, then suspended him for three days.  In February 2005, he again refused Saturday work and was fired.  There was also, in the same employee’s history with the company, a crashed truck and a failed drug test (which resulted in his termination, and eventual return to work under probation).

Though the district court granted summary judgment, the Fourth Circuit reverses in an unpublished decision.  The panel observes:

“The EEOC presented sufficient evidence of a prima facie case of religious discrimination. Both Thompson and the EEOC assert different theories as to why Yisrael’s employment was terminated. Thompson claimed that it was because of Yisrael’s past employment troubles and unsatisfactory job performance during his probationary period, while the EEOC presented evidence that Yisrael’s termination was the result of his failure to work on Saturdays in observance of the Sabbath.”

The employer’s explanation was that while the Saturday absences were a factor in the decision to fire the driver, the decision was motivated by the balance of the employee’s history.  He was fired and rehired (on probation) because of the failed drug test, and he damaged a truck besides.  The panel holds, though, that the record established at least a prima facie showing of religiously-motivated discrimination:

“Since three of the four days Yisrael missed were Saturday absences, and the reason given for Yisrael’s unsatisfactory job performance was his attendance record, the EEOC reasons that Yisrael’s termination was a result of his Saturday absences.

“Further, at least two of the four disciplinary actions Yisrael incurred were related to his Saturday absences. Yisrael was given a written warning and a three-day suspension for his second Saturday absence, which occurred on December 17, 2004. Later, Yisrael was terminated directly after his third Saturday absence on February 12, 2005. Thus, the EEOC has presented sufficient evidence for a trier of fact to determine that Yisrael was terminated for failing to work on Saturdays.”

The case was thus remanded to the district court to determine whether the employee also presented a trial-worthy reasonable accommodation claim.