CoExistA recent religious discrimination claim dismissed in favor of an employer offers a number important take-aways for both employers and employees. Specifically, on 7/16/2015 the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of a religious discrimination claim brought by a Jewish nurse who had worked for a Missouri medical center. See Shirrell v. St. Francis Med. Ctr., 7/16/15).

The trial court had granted summary judgment in favor of the employer, which was affirmed on appeal. In reaching this decision, the court concluded the plaintiff, Rebecca Shirrell did not present evidence giving rise to an inference of religious bias, as required by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as well as dismissing her state law employment discrimination claims for similar reasons.

An Overview of a Religious Discrimination Claim

For background purposes, to properly bring a religious discrimination claim under Title VII, a plaintiff must show either direct evidence of discrimination or create an inference of discrimination or retaliation under what is referred to as the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework. If there is no direct evidence and a plaintiff meets her evidentiary standard under the McDonnell Douglas framework, an employer then has the burden of showing a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the challenged action. If the defendant offers such a reason, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to show the defendant’s proffered reason is a pretext.

The court found that the nurse failed to meet her obligations under this framework. Specifically, she failed to show that she was unlawfully fired because of her religion or because she complained about a co-worker who said she would try to “Jew down” the price of a camper she intended to purchase. Additionally, the court held that Shirrell failed to demonstrate a causal connection between her complaint about her co-worker’s single derogatory remark and her termination three months later for accumulating too many disciplinary points within a 12-month period.

In terms of the failings of this religious discrimination claim, the following deficiencies were highlighted by the court:

  • Shirrell didn’t identify any similarly situated, non-Jewish employees who received more favorable treatment.
  • She offered no evidence that the ultimate decision-maker for her termination had any bias toward her because of religion.
  • Shirrell’s history of disciplinary issues plus her reliance on “one overheard, offhand remark” about religion that wasn’t directed at her were fatal to her lawsuit.

Additionally, Ms. Shirrell’s Title VII retaliation claim failed because the evidence showed that the employer terminated Shirrell pursuant to hospital policy for disciplinary reasons, rather than in response to Shirrell’s complaints about the co-worker’s derogatory statement.

Religious Discrimination Take-Aways 

Our law firm recently obtained a summary judgment award in a religious discrimination claim on substantially identical reasons discussed in the Shirrell v. St. Francis Med. Ctr. case. In both cases, a critical factor for the employer’s success was having well-documenting employment policies in place and documenting instances of poor job performance on the part of the employee or violating the employer’s policies. Such evidence will often be an insurmountable obstacle to showing that the employer’s adverse employment action was pretext for religious discrimination.

For employees, it is not enough to simply point to a derogatory statement as evidence of discrimination and expect to be successful in a discrimination claim. This is especially true where the adverse employment action occurs months after the statement was made.

For more information about complying with Title TII’s requirements for providing reasonable religious accommodations or complying with its anti-discriminatory requirements, contact Michigan employment attorney Jason Shinn. Mr. Shinn has been focused on employment law matters since 2001.