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Chavis v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. New York

July 18, 2017

CORY CHAVIS, Plaintiff,
v.
WAL-MART STORES, INC., WAL-MART STORES EAST, LP, Defendants.

          G. Oliver Koppell, Esq., Daniel Schreck, Esq. Law Offices of G. Oliver Koppell & Associates, P.C.

          Pamela J. Moore, Esq., Sami Asaad, Esq., McCarter & English, LLP

          OPINION

          DENNY CHIN United States Circuit Judge.

         In 2013, plaintiff Cory Chavis, an Asset Protection Manager at the Walmart store in Suffern, New York, requested a religious accommodation permitting her not to work on Sundays so she could observe the Sabbath. She brought this action against defendants Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores East, LP (together, "Walmart") under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq. ("Title VII"), seeking damages and alleging that Walmart employees unlawfully harassed her and discriminated against her on the basis of her religion and retaliated against her for pressing her accommodation request. Defendants move for summary judgment to dismiss the complaint in its entirety. Because genuine issues of material fact preclude the entry of summary judgment on certain of Chavis's claims, defendants' motion is granted in part and denied in part.

         BACKGROUND

         The following facts are summarized from the evidentiary record and are construed in the light most favorable to Chavis, the party opposing summary judgment.

         Chavis works for Walmart as the Asset Protection Manager ("APM") of the Suffern, New York store. ECF 67, Consol. Stmt. of Mat. Facts ("Consol. Stmt.") ¶ 1. She has worked for Walmart since 1994 and has been an APM at the Suffern store since 2006. Id. Chavis is a member of the Apostolic Pentecostal Church and observes the Sabbath on Sundays by, among other things, refraining from work. Id. ¶¶ 47-50.

         For approximately six years in the APM position, Chavis was able to arrange her schedule to avoid work on Sundays. In March 2013, however, Walmart changed its policy to require APMs to work every third Sunday. Id. ¶¶ 53, 142. Chavis requested an accommodation not to work on Sunday due to her religious observance. Id. ¶ 54. The request was not granted, and Chavis was told that she could either use vacation days to avoid working on Sundays or find another position that did not require any Sunday work. Id. ¶ 55. For nearly six months, Chavis used her vacation days to avoid working Sundays. Id. ¶¶ 55, 143, 148. After additional supervisors failed to grant her request, Chavis appealed to Walmart's "Open Door" hotline. Id. ¶¶ 144-47. In September 2013, Walmart exempted her from Sunday work and restored the vacation days she had used in the prior six months. Id. ¶¶ 147-48; ECF 60, Koppell Decl. Exs. 1, 2 ("Chavis Dep.") at 88-89.

         Subsequently, a number of interactions took place between Chavis and her superiors, which Chavis describes as discrimination and harassment in retaliation for her accommodation request, and which Walmart claims were routine actions that had no adverse effect on Chavis's employment. See generally ECF 58, Pl.'s Opp. at 6-10. In addition, Chavis applied seventeen times to various positions between March 2013 and the filing of the instant lawsuit. ECF 47, Assad Decl. Ex. H. She was denied each promotion and interviewed for only one. Cons. Stmt. ¶¶ 185-88.

         Chavis filed this suit in June 2015, claiming that Walmart discriminated and retaliated against her in violation of Title VII and NYSHRL by, among other things, denying her promotions while promoting others who were not Sunday Sabbath observers, imposing unwarranted discipline, and subjecting her to unwarranted surveillance, investigation, and other harassment sufficient to alter the terms and conditions of her work environment. See ECF 1, Compl. at 12-14. After the completion of discovery, defendants moved for summary judgment, principally on the ground that Chavis cannot establish a prima facie case of discrimination for any of her claims. See ECF 45, Defs.' Mem. at 1. Chavis opposed the motion, and defendants moved to strike portions of Chavis's declaration and counter-statement of material facts as contradictory to her deposition testimony, lacking personal knowledge, and based on hearsay or other inadmissible evidence. ECF 66, Defs.' Mot. to Strike. After oral argument on June 19, 2017, I denied defendants' motion to strike except as to paragraph 6 of Chavis's declaration, which was stricken as inadmissible hearsay. See Minute Entry dated 6/19/2017.

         DISCUSSION

         Chavis alleges that Walmart discriminated against her on the basis of religion in violation of Title VII by failing to accommodate her religious observance for a six-month period in 2013, creating a hostile work environment, and failing to promote her on seventeen separate occasions. She also contends that Walmart retaliated against her because of her accommodation request. After discussing the applicable legal standard, I address each claim in turn.

         I. Legal Standard

         Summary judgment is appropriate "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also SCR Joint Venture L.P. v. Warshawsky, 559 F.3d 133, 137 (2d Cir. 2009). "An issue of fact is genuine if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party, " and "[a] fact is material if it might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law." SCR Joint Venture, 599 F.3d at 137 (quoting Roe v. City of Waterbury, 542 F.3d 31, 35 (2d Cir. 2008)). "A court reviewing a motion for summary judgment must 'construe the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and must resolve all ambiguities and draw all reasonable inferences against the movant.'" Beyer v. Cty. of Nassau, 524 F.3d 160, 163 (2d Cir. 2008) (quoting Dall. Aerospace, Inc. v. CIS Air Corp., 352 F.3d 775, 780 (2d Cir. 2003)).

         Title VII prohibits "discriminat[ion] against any individual with respect to [her] compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's . . . religion." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). Chavis's Title VII and NYSHRL discrimination claims are governed by the burden-shifting analysis set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802-04 (1973). Tolbert v. Smith, 790 F.3d 427, 434 (2d Cir. 2015). New York courts "require the same standard of proof for claims brought under the NYSHRL as for those brought under Title VII." Leopold v. Baccarat, Inc., 174 F.3d 261, 264 n. 1 (2d Cir. 1999). Accordingly, my conclusions regarding Chavis's Title VII claims for retaliation, hostile work environment, and discriminatory failure to accommodate and promote apply with equal force to her analogous NYSHRL claims.

         II. Failure to Accommodate

         Chavis claims that Walmart failed to accommodate her Sabbath observance for the six-month period from April to September 2013, in violation of Title VII. Pl.'s Opp. 29-30. She argues that, during this period, Walmart disciplined her by "forc[ing her] to use her vacation days to avoid working on Sundays." ECF 59, Pl.'s 56.1 Stmt. ¶ 56. Walmart argues in response that Chavis's use of vacation days does not constitute disciplinary action, and she was not disciplined in any other way for not working Sundays. ECF 63, Defs.' Reply at 3.

         A. Applicable Law

         "It is an unlawful employment practice . . . for an employer not to make reasonable accommodations, short of undue hardship, for the religious practices of his employees and prospective employees." Baker v. The Home Depot, 445 F.3d 541, 546 (2d Cir. 2006) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). To establish a failure-to-accommodate claim under Title VII, a plaintiff must first prove a prima facie case of religious discrimination: namely, that "(1) he or she has a bona fide religious belief that conflicts with an employment requirement; (2) he or she informed the employer of this belief; (3) he or she was disciplined for failure to comply with the conflicting employment requirement." Philbrook v. Ansonia Bd. of Educ., 757 F.2d 476, 481 (2d Cir. 1985) (citation omitted).

         Once a plaintiff establishes a prima facie case of religious discrimination, the inquiry turns to whether the employer complied with the statutory requirement to offer the plaintiff a "reasonable accommodation" for his or her religious belief, "unless doing so would cause the employer to suffer an undue hardship." Baker, 445 F.3d at 546 (quoting Cosme v. Henderson, 287 F.3d 152, 158 (2d Cir. 2002)).

         B. Application

         The parties do not dispute that Chavis has a bona fide religious belief that conflicted with an employment requirement or that she informed Walmart of this belief. Cons. Stmt. ¶¶ 47-54, 57. Because Chavis was not disciplined for failing to comply with the requirement to work every third Sunday, however, she cannot establish a prima facie case of religious discrimination and her failure to accommodate claim therefore fails.

         As an initial matter, Chavis did in fact comply with Walmart's requirement by availing herself of the option to use her vacation days on the Sundays that she was required to work. Cons. Stmt. ¶¶ 55-56. Although, according to Chavis, she was told that she could either use her vacation days or find another position that did not require Sunday work, at no point did Walmart discipline Chavis for taking vacation days every third Sunday. Chavis Dep. at 92.

         Chavis argues instead that Walmart forced her to use vacation days to avoid working on Sundays, which constituted "discipline." This argument fails as a matter of law because requiring an employee to use vacation days to avoid work conflicting with the employee's religious observance does not constitute an adverse employment action.[1]

         Although the Second Circuit has not defined what constitutes "discipline" in the context of a religious discrimination claim based on an employer's failure to accommodate, district courts in the circuit have equated discipline with an adverse employment action. See St. Juste v. Metro Plus Health Plan, 8 F.Supp.3d 287, 316 (E.D.N.Y. 2014); Siddiqi v. N.Y. City Health & Hosps. Corp., 572 F.Supp.2d 353, 370 (S.D.N.Y. 2008).[2] An adverse employment action is a "materially adverse change in the terms and conditions of employment, " such as "a termination of employment, a demotion evidenced by a decrease in wage or salary, a less distinguished title, a In a typical failure-to-accommodate case, a plaintiff is disciplined by her employer after she fails to comply with an employment requirement due to her religious belief. Here, Chavis was not disciplined and did not suffer an adverse employment action between April and September 2013 as a result of her religious conflict; as noted above, she complied with her job requirements and experienced no demotion or alteration of job responsibilities as a result of her use of vacation days to avoid Sunday work.

         The fact that Chavis needed to use vacation days to avoid a religious conflict is not an adverse employment action because she "was not deprived of a material benefit, [but] simply chose to use the benefit in a particular way." O'Neill v. City of Bridgeport Police Dep't 719 F.Supp.2d 219, 226 (D. Conn. 2010) (holding that the plaintiff did not suffer an adverse employment action by needing to use vacation days to accommodate his religious beliefs); accord St. Juste, 8 F.Supp.3d at 316 (collecting district court cases holding the same). Furthermore, as the result of Chavis's appeals to the Open Door hotline, she was ultimately exempted from working Sundays without having to use her vacation days, and the vacation days she used in the preceding six months were restored.

         Finally, even if Chavis could establish a prima facie case of discrimination, it was not unreasonable for Walmart to require her to use vacation days as a religious accommodation. An employer's accommodation offer is reasonable where it "eliminate[s] the conflict between the employment requirement and the religious practice." Baker, 445 F.3d at 548 (citation omitted). The Second Circuit has noted that a proposed accommodation may be unreasonable "if it cause[s] [an employee] to suffer an inexplicable diminution in his employee status or benefits, " but that "employees are not entitled to hold out for the most beneficial accommodation." Id. (citation omitted).

         Chavis's ability to use her vacation time to observe the Sabbath eliminated the conflict with the requirement that she work every third Sunday. Title VII requires only that Walmart offer a reasonable accommodation, not necessarily the one that Chavis seeks. Durant v. Nynex, 101 F.Supp. 2d. 227, 234 (S.D.N.Y. 2000) (quoting Ansonia Bd. of Educ. v. Philbrook, 479 U.S. 60, 69 (1986)). By using her vacation days, Chavis was able to observe the Sabbath and was required only to use a workplace benefit for its intended purpose -- time off from work. Cf. Ansonia Bd. of Educ., 479 U.S. at 70 (holding that allowing an employee to take unpaid leave is typically a reasonable accommodation). By allowing Chavis to use her vacation time every third Sunday, Walmart was accommodating her, and in the end Walmart even returned the vacation days she ...


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