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Media Alerts - United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Consol Energy, Inc. -- Fourth Circuit
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November 21, 2017
  United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Consol Energy, Inc. -- Fourth Circuit
Butcher and the Beast: Fourth Circuit Upholds Religious Accommodation Ruling for Man Who Fears Hand-Scanners

Areas of Law: Labor & Employment Law

Issue Presented: Whether Consol Energy was required under Title VII to provide a religious accommodation for a man's religious belief that the use of a hand-scanner would imprint him with "the Mark of the Beast" when special accommodations were made for other employees with hand injuries?

Brief Summary:
Beverly Butcher, Jr. informed his employer, Consol's Robinson Run Mine in West Virginia, of his sincere religious objection to the use of biometric hand scanners. However, Consol Energy failed to make an accommodation for Butcher despite accommodating other employees for non-religious reasons. In a published opinion, the Fourth Circuit held that Butcher was entitled to protection under 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e - 2000e-6 (2012) (Title VII), which makes it an unlawful employment practice "to discharge any individual...because of such individual's ... religion." The Fourth Circuit upheld the district court's finding, however, that Consol Energy did not owe Butcher punitive damages as there was no "malice or reckless indifference" towards Butcher.

Extended Summary: In 2012, Consol's Robinson Run Mine in West Virginia decided to implement biometric hand scanners to better track its employees' work hours. Mr. Butcher, an Evangelical Christian, had worked for the Robinson Run Mine since 1977 and had been a satisfactory employee during that time. Mr. Butcher objected to the use of hand scanners on religious grounds, as he feared he would be imprinted with the "Mark of the Beast" if he used the hand scanners. Mr. Butcher believed that those branded with "the Mark of the Beast" are identified as followers of the Antichrist, which allows the Antichrist to manipulate them.

Mr. Butcher raised this objection with his employers and provided them with a letter from his pastor attesting to his "deep dedication to the Lord Jesus Christ," as well as a letter he wrote explaining his belief in the Book of Revelation. The employer had a letter from the scanner's manufacturer offering assurances that the scanner cannot place a mark on the body of a person. The letter also explained that "the Mark of the Beast" is only placed on the right hand or forehead and Mr. Butcher could use his left hand to clock in instead. After deciding that this accommodation was unsatisfactory and after being told that failure to participate would result in his termination, Mr. Butcher felt that he had no option but to tender his resignation and take early retirement. Unbeknownst to Mr. Butcher, Consol made accommodations for people with hand injuries to enter a personnel number into a keypad attached to the system.

After the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) declined to negotiate his issue, because religious accommodations were not included in their collective bargaining agreement with Consol, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission brought suit against Consol. A jury found for Mr. Butcher and awarded him $150,000 in compensatory damages. The district court found Mr. Butcher was owed $436,860.74 in front and back pay and lost benefits, and issued a permanent injunction against Consol to refrain from future violations of Title VII and provide management training on religious accommodations.

The Fourth Circuit heard several issues on appeal. First, the court upheld the Title VII decision, because Mr. Butcher had shown that (1) he had a bona fide religious belief that conflicts with an employment requirement, (2) he informed his employer, and (3) he was disciplined as a result. EEOC v. Firestone Fibers & Textiles Co., 515 F.3d 307, 312 (1977). Citing Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, 887 (1990), the Fourth Circuit reasoned the correctness or plausibility of Butcher's religious understanding was not at issue, so long as his understanding was a sincerely-held religious belief. Once the court discounted any suggestion that Mr. Butcher misunderstood the Book of Revelation, it found the case to be straightforward. Mr. Butcher had a religious belief and Consol Energy failed to reasonably accommodate that belief by failing to give him an accommodation that was given to other employees for non-religious reasons. Further, Consol's failure to provide accommodation made the work place intolerable for Mr. Butcher. See Green v. Brennan, 136 S. Ct. 1769 (2016). Consequently, the Fourth Circuit found that Butcher was constructively discharged.

The court also upheld the jury's award of compensatory damages, and the district court's award of lost wages. In the court's view, Mr. Butcher sought to mitigate his losses by searching for work, but was unsuccessful in part because of the "rural economic climate." Further, Mr. Butcher eventually accepted a lower-paying job, which the court viewed as evidence of mitigation. The court held that Mr. Butcher's pension could not be used to offset his damages since it was a collateral source of income, not used to indemnify or offset his losses.

The court finally upheld the district court's denial of punitive damages, and determination that evidence of the UMWA negotiations were not admissible at trial. As to the damages issue, the court found Consol Energy's efforts to provide some accommodation to Butcher evidenced a lack of malice or reckless disregard for Mr. Butcher's beliefs. As to the evidentiary issue, the court found the UMWA negotiations were irrelevant to the determination of failure to make reasonable accommodations.

To read the full opinion, click here.

Panel: Niemeyer, Traxler, and Harris, Circuit Judges

Argument Date: 12/07/16

Date of Issued Opinion: 06/12/17

Docket Number: 16-1230, 16-1406

Decided: Reversed in part, vacated in part, and remanded for further proceedings by published opinion.

Case Alert Author: Jennifer Smith, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law

Counsel:
ARGUED: Jeffrey Alan Holmstrand, GROVE, HOLMSTRAND & DELK, PLLC, Wheeling, West Virginia, for Appellants/Cross-Appellees. Philip Matthew Kovnat, U.S. EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, Washington, D.C., for Appellee/Cross-Appellant. ON BRIEF: Jeffrey A. Grove, GROVE, HOLMSTRAND & DELK, PLLC, Wheeling, West Virginia, for Appellants/Cross-Appellees. P. David Lopez, General Counsel, Jennifer S. Goldstein, Associate General Counsel, Lorraine C. Davis, Assistant General Counsel, Elizabeth E. Theran, Office of General Counsel, U.S. EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, Washington, D.C., for Appellee/Cross-Appellant.

Author of Opinion: Judge Harris

Case Alert Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 11/21/2017 04:00 PM     4th Circuit  

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