Ninth Circuit Reverses Dismissal in Religious Discrimination Case Involving California Loyal Oath
In a recent decision by the Ninth Circuit, the court reversed the district court's dismissal of a Plaintiff's complaint challenging a state employer's refusal to allow a religious addendum to the public employee loyalty oath set forth in the California Constitution. The Court held that Plaintiff stated claims under Title VII and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and was entitled to leave to amend her claims under the Free Exercise Clauses of the federal and state constitutions.
Brianna Bolden-Hardge, a devout Jehovah's Witness, was offered a position at the California Office of the State Controller. However, she objected to California's loyalty oath, which requires employees to pledge primary allegiance to the federal and state governments and affirm their willingness to take up arms to defend them. Bolden-Hardge believed that signing the oath without modification would violate her religious beliefs. She requested an accommodation to sign the loyalty oath with an addendum specifying that her allegiance was first and foremost to God and that she would not take up arms. The Controller's Office rejected her proposal and rescinded the job offer. Bolden-Hardge subsequently returned to a lower-paying job at the California Franchise Tax Board, which allowed her to include a similar addendum when taking the oath.
Lawsuit and Claims
Bolden-Hardge filed a lawsuit against the Controller's Office and the California State Controller in her official capacity. She alleged violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 under both failure-to-accommodate and disparate-impact theories. Additionally, she asserted a failure-to-accommodate claim against the Controller's Office under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and alleged that the refusal to accommodate her religious beliefs violated the Free Exercise Clauses of the federal and state constitutions.
Ninth's Circuit's Decision: Standing and Damages
The Ninth Circuit analyzed Bolden-Hardge's standing to bring her claims and determined that her alleged injury was redressable only through a claim for damages. The court found that she lacked the actual and imminent threat of future injury required to have standing to seek prospective relief on any of her claims. The court nonetheless allowed her to attempt to cure this defect by amending her complaint.
The Court held that Bolden-Hardge could seek damages from the Controller's Office on her claims under Title VII and FEHA, both of which subject state employers to suits for damages. However, she could not obtain damages for her free-exercise claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which does not provide a cause of action to sue state entities or state officials in their official capacities. The court held that the district court abused its discretion in denying Bolden-Hardge leave to amend her complaint to seek damages from the State Controller in her individual capacity.
Prima Facie Case for Failure to Accommodate Religion
The Ninth Circuit held that Bolden-Hardge successfully pleaded a prima facie case of failure to accommodate religion under Title VII and FEHA by alleging that she held a bona fide religious belief that conflicted with the "faith and allegiance" component of the loyalty oath, an employment requirement. The court then considered whether accommodating Bolden-Hardge's request would pose an undue hardship on the Controller's Office.
Assuming without deciding that accommodating Bolden-Hardge would violate the California Constitution, the Court held that the Controller's Office could not rebut her prima facie case by arguing that violating state law would pose an undue hardship as a matter of law. The court reasoned that the presumption of undue hardship applies only when accommodating an employee's religious beliefs would require a private employer to violate federal or state law. However, when the employer is part of the state government responsible for creating and enforcing the law, and there is no indication that violating that law would subject the public employer to an enforcement action by another part of the state government, deeming accommodation a presumptive undue hardship at the pleadings stage would permit states to legislate away federal accommodation obligations. The Court noted that the Third Circuit has similarly focused on the risk of enforcement in assessing undue hardship.
Prima Facie Case for Disparate Impact
The Ninth Circuit also held that Bolden-Hardge successfully pleaded a prima facie case of disparate impact under Title VII. To establish a prima facie case of disparate impact, a plaintiff must (1) show a significant disparate impact on a protected class or group, (2) identify the specific employment practices or selection criteria at issue, and (3) show a causal relationship between the challenged practices or criteria and the disparate impact.
In this case, the Court held that statistics were not necessary to support Bolden-Hardge's claim where a disparate impact was obvious. The court further held that, at this stage of the case, the Controller's Office did not show that it was entitled to a business necessity defense.
The Ninth Circuit's decision in Bolden-Hardge v. State Controller's Office underscores the importance of religious accommodations in the workplace and the potential liability employers may face for failing to provide such accommodations. Employers should carefully consider requests for religious accommodations and engage in a good-faith interactive process to determine whether an accommodation is reasonable and does not impose an undue hardship on their operations.
This case also serves as a reminder to state employers that they cannot escape federal accommodation obligations by relying on state law provisions that conflict with federal law. Employers should stay informed about their obligations under both federal and state laws and consult legal counsel when faced with complex accommodation requests.