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Jackson v. NTN Driveshaft, Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. Indiana, Indianapolis Division

May 10, 2017




         Jeffrey L. Jackson is a Seventh-Day Adventist who has a sincere religious practice of observing the Sabbath from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday. According to his church's religious teachings, he should refrain from work during this period. This presented a problem for Jackson because his employer, NTN Driveshaft, Inc., required him to work Saturday overtime shifts. He therefore sought (and obtained) a religious accommodation that allowed him to observe the Sabbath if he found a replacement for his shifts. Almost one year later, Human Resources Supervisor Duane Roberts terminated Jackson for excessive absences. Two of the relevant absences were for Sabbath shifts; one was not.

         NTN now concedes that Roberts made a mistake-Jackson should not have been fired. But it invokes the honest-belief doctrine: Roberts genuinely thought that Jackson had violated the company's attendance policy, and that was the only basis for his decision to terminate. In other words, Roberts made an unfortunate mistake, but his error was not unlawful or discriminatory.

         Jackson, on the other hand, maintains that he has been treated unfavorably solely because of his religion. He brings three claims, all under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq.: (1) failure to accommodate, (2) religious discrimination, and (3) retaliation. NTN now moves for summary judgment on all counts. Because a reasonable jury could return a verdict for Jackson on each claim, NTN's motion must be DENIED.

         I. Legal Standard

         “Summary judgment is proper where, construing facts and drawing inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, ‘there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.'” Novoselsky v. Brown, 822 F.3d 342, 348-49 (7th Cir. 2016) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a)).

         II. Failure to Accommodate

         Title VII “require[s] an employer to make reasonable efforts to accommodate the religious practices of employees unless doing so would cause the employer undue hardship.” Porter v. City of Chi., 700 F.3d 944, 951 (7th Cir. 2012). Pursuant to the Supreme Court's recent decision in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., 135 S.Ct. 2028 (2015), a plaintiff bringing this type of claim must show: (1) his religious belief or practice conflicted with an employment requirement, and (2) his need for an accommodation of that religious belief or practice was a motivating factor in the employer's adverse employment decision. Summers v. Whitis, No. 4:15-cv-00093-RLY-DML, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 173222, at *11 (S.D. Ind. Dec. 15, 2016). If an employee makes this initial showing, the employer can (1) rebut one or more elements of the claim, (2) show that it offered a reasonable accommodation, or (3) show that an accommodation of the employee's religious needs would result in undue hardship. At summary judgment, the court must determine if a reasonable jury could find for Jackson.

         The court holds Jackson has presented sufficient evidence to stave off summary judgment. First, there is no dispute he maintained a religious practice that conflicted with an employment requirement. As a member of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, Jackson has a sincere religious practice of observing the Sabbath. (Filing No. 82-34, Declaration of Jeffrey Jackson ¶ 1). He believes that he should refrain from work from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday. (Id.). But, due to high production demand, the forge plant where Jackson worked “was a seven-day-a-week operation” during the relevant years. (Filing No. 82-43, Deposition of Duane Roberts 43:12-18). Employees were required to work overtime on the weekends. (Filing No. 74-2, Deposition of Jeffrey Jackson 75:23-76:4; Jackson Dec. ¶ 4). A policy of mandatory Saturday overtime objectively conflicts with religious observation of the Sabbath.

         For the second element, Jackson shows that there is a dispute of material fact as to whether his need for a religious accommodation was a motivating factor in the decision to terminate him. He first requested an accommodation on April 25, 2013 through his pastor. (Filing No. 82-20, First Request for Accommodation). NTN offered the following accommodation: Jackson could avoid working on any scheduled Saturday shift if he found a qualified replacement to work for him. (Filing No. 82-27, Accommodation). If Jackson could not find a qualified replacement, he would need to use a vacation day or a personal day, which NTN calls “occasional absence” (OA) time.

         NTN annually provides each employee with five OA days. This means that an employee can accrue five unscheduled absences each year and not suffer any discipline. Once OA time has been depleted, he is given a verbal notice that additional absences will result in attendance points. The first absence after an employee exhausts his OA time results in a written warning and one attendance point. The second absence results in a final written warning and a second attendance point. The third absence results in a third attendance point and termination of employment. These points reset to zero when OA days are reloaded (i.e., once each year). (See generally Filing No. 82-30, Employee Handbook).

         Roberts testified that his decision to terminate “was based exclusively on [his] honest belief that Plaintiff had accumulated the terminal number of points (3) under NTN's attendance policy.” (Filing No. 74-7, Declaration of Duane Roberts ¶ 5).[1] It appears that this belief was mistaken in two distinct ways. First, Roberts relied on a flawed attendance report. This error stemmed from the fact that the two systems NTN uses to track attendance conflict on Jackson's record. (Compare Filing No. 82-3, Attendance Counts Report with Filing No. 82-5, ADP Report). Put simply, the ADP Report had Jackson closer to termination than the Attendance Counts Report. Roberts primarily relied upon the ADP Report in making his decision, (Roberts Dep. 252:12-15), but, in retrospect, NTN recognizes that the Attendance Counts Report was more accurate. (See Filing No. 74-1, Declaration of Kathy Littleton ¶¶ 9-11).[2]

         Jackson highlights another error though: both reports plainly reveal that he had OA time remaining when he was fired.[3] According to NTN's own records, Jackson had either one or three OA days remaining when he began earning attendance points. (See Attendance Counts Report (three days); ADP Report (one day)). So even if Roberts thought the ADP Report was accurate, he could not have rationally concluded that terminating Jackson was justified by company policy. Jackson also points to a handwritten notation on his ADP Report that states, “4 OA 2 ABS.” (ADP Report at 9). If Jackson is to be believed, this note proves NTN understood he had used four OA days and had been assigned two attendance points when he was terminated.

         NTN does not concede this specific error. Rather, Roberts offered a different explanation for this note in his deposition. He testified that Jackson “overdipped” one OA day in the previous period, so NTN only provided him with four OA days instead of the usual five. (Roberts Dep. 247:15-248:14). If true, this would mean Jackson properly began receiving attendance points after using four OA days. But NTN's internal presentation on its attendance policy suggests that “overdipping” OA days cannot occur. (See Filing No. 82-36, OA Policy Presentation at 4). Rather, if an ...

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