Federal Court Denies Meat Processor's Motion for Summary Judgment on Agency's Title VII Race, National Origin, and Religious Discrimination and Retaliation Case
DENVER - A federal judge has denied, in its entirety, the motion for summary judgment by major meat processor JBS in a race, national origin, and religious discrimination case brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in Colorado, the federal agency announced today.
On Aug. 30, 2010, EEOC filed two similar discrimination lawsuits against JBS, one in Colorado (EEOC v. JBS USA, LLC, d/b/a JBS Swift & Co., 10-cv-02103-PAB-KLM) and one in Nebraska. In its Colorado lawsuit, EEOC charged that JBS engaged in wide-scale religious discrimination when it failed to reasonably accommodate its Muslim employees by refusing to allow them to pray according to their religious tenets. EEOC also charged that JBS retaliated against Muslim employees by disciplining or firing them when they requested that their evening break be moved so that they could break their fast and pray closer to sundown during Ramadan 2008, an Islamic holy month requiring daytime fasting.
Such alleged conduct violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion. It also requires employers to make reasonable accommodations to their employees' sincerely held religious beliefs or practices, unless it would cause an undue hardship to do so. EEOC filed suit after first attempting a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process.
On Aug. 8, 2011, U.S. District Judge Philip A. Brimmer bifurcated the case into two phases. Phase I will be tried before the judge and includes EEOC's claims alleging a pattern or practice of (a) denying Muslim employees religious accommodations, (b) discriminatory discipline and discharge, and retaliation. The Phase I claims are limited to events during Ramadan 2008.
EEOC's Nebraska case proceeded more quickly. At trial in May 2013, the judge in the Nebraska case found that EEOC had satisfied its initial burden of proving a prima facie case of religious discrimination, but concluded that JBS had established its affirmative defense of undue hardship, and entered judgment in JBS's favor.
On March 31, 2014, JBS filed its motion for summary judgment in the Colorado case, seeking to dismiss all of EEOC's Phase I claims. JBS first argued that the decision in the Nebraska case controlled the Colorado case. Judge Brimmer rejected JBS's argument, finding numerous factual differences between the two cases. Additionally, the court held that because JBS had succeeded in keeping evidence about the Colorado events from being introduced in the Nebraska case, the Nebraska holding could not be applied to the Colorado facts.
The court similarly rejected JBS's numerous arguments relating to the alleged undue burden of the religious accommodations proposed by EEOC. The court observed that religious accommodation might be accomplished through a combination of measures, rather than considering each proposed measure individually and rejecting it as insufficient if it could not alone resolve the problem. The court also rejected the notion that an accommodation must completely eliminate all conflict between work rules and all the various individuals' religious beliefs, recognizing that religious accommodation does not have to be perfect to be reasonable.
The court also rejected JBS's argument that its "en masse"terminations of a group of Somali Muslim employees during Ramadan 2008 was a one-time event that could not constitute a pattern or practice of unlawful discrimination. The court noted at least six different potentially discriminatory decisions during Ramadan 2008 that could lead a fact finder to conclude that the events of Ramadan 2008 consisted of multiple events or occurrences of discrimination and that discrimination was JBS's standard operating procedure during that time.
Judge Brimmer's decision denying JBS's motion for summary judgment clears the way for trial of the EEOC's Phase I claims, which is estimated to require four to six weeks.
According to its website, JBS is a leading processor of beef, pork, and lamb in the United States, a leading processor of beef in Canada, and the largest cattle feeder in the world. JBS is the North American arm of JBS S.A., the world's leading animal protein processor with more than 200,000 employees world-wide.
The EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. Further information about EEOC is available on its website at www.eeoc.gov .