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Labor Law

Labor Law: United Airlines settles religious discrimination case for Buddhist pilot

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20150817_MBZ_KAREN

RTD Metro Business law columnist, Karen Michael.

United Airlines agreed to pay a Buddhist pilot $305,000 to settle a religious discrimination case filed on his behalf by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The pilot was allegedly diagnosed with alcohol dependency and, as a result, lost the required medical certificate issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

United Airlines participates in the Human Intervention Motivational Study (HIMS) Program which, according to its website, is “an occupational substance abuse treatment program dedicated to helping all pilots return to the cockpit.”

To complete the HIMS program, pilots with substance abuse problems seeking to obtain a new medical certificate from the FAA must regularly attend Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

According to the AA website, AA’s “Twelve Steps “are a set of spiritual principles. When practiced as a way of life, they can expel the obsession to drink and enable the sufferer to recover from alcoholism.” The AA characterizes among the Twelve Steps that members, “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity,” “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him,” “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs,” “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character” and “Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.”

The United Airlines pilot at the center of the lawsuit is Buddhist. He objected to the religious content of AA. As an accommodation to his religious beliefs, he sought to substitute regular attendance at a Buddhism-based peer support group. The lawsuit alleged that United Airlines refused to accommodate his religious objection to the AA program. As a result, the pilot was unable to obtain a new FAA medical certificate permitting him to fly again.

The EEOC alleged that United Airlines discriminated against the pilot on the basis of his religion when it refused to modify its addiction treatment program to change a requirement that conflicted with his religious beliefs.

According to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, employers cannot discriminate against employees on the basis of religion, and must provide reasonable accommodations for an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs, so long as doing so does not impose an undue hardship on the employer’s business.

Here the pilot would have had to demonstrate that the alternative program is equally effective at addressing his substance abuse, as otherwise, safety could be impacted. In any analysis, employers can demonstrate undue hardship if the accommodation would impact safety.

As stated by the EEOC in announcing the settlement, “Employers have the affirmative obligation to modify their policies to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs.” The EEOC described United Airlines’ response to the employee as “inflexible” when it “refused to make a modest change its program that would have caused them no hardship.”

According to the EEOC’s announcement, the pilot will be compensated for his back pay and reinstated into its HIMS program while “allowing him to attend a non-12-step peer recovery program. The company will also accept religious accommodation requests in its HIMS Program going forward, institute a new policy on religious accommodations, and train its employees.”

The EEOC has initiated several lawsuits against employers for refusing to accommodate the religious beliefs of employees. Employers should not question the reasonableness of an employee’s belief, but can only engage in the interactive process and make a good faith effort to provide reasonable accommodations unless doing so creates an undue hardship.

Karen Michael is an attorney and the president of Richmond-based Karen Michael PLC and author of “Stay Hired.” She can be reached at stayhired@stayhired.net.

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