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Analysis

Hospital Prevails in Nurse's EEOC-Backed Religious Discrimination Suit on Appeal

By Steven Porter  
   November 14, 2018

North Memorial Health Care rescinded a conditional offer of employment to a nurse who said she couldn't work Friday nights, given her religious beliefs as a Seventh-day Adventist.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission failed to prove that a hospital in Minnesota violated the law by rescinding a registered nurse's conditional employment offer after she requested a modified schedule to accommodate her religious beliefs, according to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

A three-judge panel ruled 2-1 on Tuesday to affirm the lower court's summary judgment decision in favor of North Memorial Health Care, based in Robbinsdale, Minnesota.

"There is no duty to accommodate an applicant or employee by hiring or transferring her into a position when she is unwilling or unable to perform one of its essential job functions," Circuit Judge James B. Loken wrote in the decision.

The dispute began five years ago, when Emily Sure-Ondara, RN, received a conditional offer of employment with North Memorial's Collaborative Acute Care for the Elderly (CACE) Unit in November 2013. The position required each nurse to work an eight-hour shift every other weekend, as established by the hospital's collective bargaining agreement with the Minnesota Nurses Association, according to court records.

Sure-Ondara accepted the conditional offer then later requested an accommodation for her religious beliefs as a Seventh-day Adventist, which preclude her from working on Friday nights to allow time for Sabbath rest.

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The hospital's human resources team considered Sure-Ondara's request but determined that it would be unable to accommodate the schedule modification for a newly trained nurse in this particular program. The hospital rescinded the employment offer but encouraged her to apply for other positions.

Sure-Ondara did apply for other North Memorial jobs but did not secure one. She was hired in February 2014 to a non-union position at a different hospital that accommodated her religious beliefs, according to court records.

In addition to the EEOC, Sure-Ondara has had backing from the American Civil Liberties Union, the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, and other religious groups. She also may have found a sympathetic ear in Circuit Judge L. Steven Grasz, who dissented.

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"This case presents an important question: whether a request by a job applicant or employee for a religious accommodation can qualify as 'opposition' to an unlawful employment practice under Title VII, and thus form the basis of a retaliation claim under [the relevant statute]," Grasz wrote.

"In light of the Supreme Court's broad interpretation of this provision in Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville & Davidson County, Tennessee, … and the near-universal consensus of circuit courts of appeals interpreting almost identical statutory language in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), I would answer this question in the affirmative."

Grasz said he would reverse the district court's summary judgment decision on the basis that the EEOC established "a genuine dispute of material fact on each element of its claim."

North Memorial Health Care Prevails on Appeal in EEOC-Backed Suit by HLMedit on Scribd

Steven Porter is editor at HealthLeaders.

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