In the news for April 2023, significant legal issues surrounding religious accommodations and “preferred pronouns” may hinge on a Lancaster County postal worker’s Supreme Court lawsuit, and Pennsylvania employers saw big wins in the areas of workers’ compensation immunity and severance waivers. See the details below.
Significant issues in the federal courts surrounding religious accommodations and “preferred pronouns” are on the horizon, and the results potentially hinge on a Lancaster County postal worker’s case
The Seventh Circuit pressed pause on an evangelical Christian teacher’s challenge to the dismissal of his suit claiming he was unlawfully forced to resign because he wouldn’t use transgender students’ preferred pronouns, citing a pending religious bias case in the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Seventh Circuit has placed the legal battle between former orchestra teacher John M. Kluge and Brownsburg High School on hold until the nation’s highest court rules in a former mail carrier’s suit looking to overturn an employer-friendly test for measuring the burden of a religious accommodation on an employer.
In the Supreme Court case, Gerald Groff vs. Louis DeJoy, Postmaster General, which was argued April 18, an evangelical Christian mail carrier from Quarryville, PA, filed suit arguing that the US Postal Service failed to accommodate his religious-accommodation request to not work on Sundays under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. After losing at the trial court level, the Third Circuit upheld a ruling that by the trial court giving the mail carrier a blanket exemption from working Sundays would have been an “undue burden” on the USPS. The U.S. Supreme Court is now wrestling with the question of what the true standard is for an “undue burden” under Title VII.
Meanwhile, at the Seventh Circuit, Kluge asked Friday for a rehearing of a panel decision that upheld the school’s trial court defeat of his Title VII religious bias suit. Kluge is arguing that because he’s a man of deep Christian faith, his religious beliefs bar him from using first names and pronouns that conflict with a student’s biological sex. Brownsburg has urged the appellate court to keep the lower court’s ruling in place because public schools play a custodial and protective role, and allowing Kluge to continue using students’ last names would have conflicted with the school’s mission to create a safe and supportive environment. Earlier, an Indiana trial court ruled in Brownsburg’s favor in July 2021, finding that allowing Kluge to bypass the school’s policy requiring staff to use students’ gender-affirming names and pronouns would’ve created an undue hardship for the school.
The Seventh Circuit case is John Kluge v. Brownsburg Community School Co., case number 21-2475.
Pa. Supreme Court says lawsuit by Home Depot employee who was bitten by a customer’s dog is barred by Workers’ Compensation Act
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that an employee who was bitten by a customer’s dog while working at Home Depot and received workers’ compensation benefits cannot sue her employer for the injury. The court overturned the decisions of two lower courts, which had found that the worker’s claims were not barred by the Workers’ Compensation Act (WCA). The WCA mandates that worker injury claims against employers must be adjudicated via workers’ compensation proceedings, but there is an exception that allows employees to sue third parties for causing a worker’s injury. The lower courts had found that the exception applied because Home Depot had prevented the worker from obtaining the customer’s identity. However, the state’s highest court found that the plain language of the WCA bars the worker’s claim, and that her purported injury is too “intertwined” with the dog bite injury to justify creating an exception.
The case is Franczyk v. The Home Depot Inc. et al., case number 11 WAP 2022, in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
US Steel Prevails Against Laid-Off Workers’ Class Action Lawsuit For Bonuses
A Western-Pennsylvania state judge has ruled in favor of U.S. Steel Corp., dismissing a proposed class action claiming the company owed bonuses to a group of laid-off workers. The judge granted U.S. Steel’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, agreeing with the company’s argument that the former employees waived their claims when they accepted severance packages. The workers had argued that annual bonuses, based on previous year’s performance, had created an implied contract over nearly a decade, with consistent payments made until 300 nonunion employees were laid off in 2016. However, U.S. Steel maintained that the bonuses were discretionary, and that as a condition of severance, the employees had agreed to waive any legal claims against the company. The proposed class included claims for breach of implied contract, violation of Pennsylvania’s Wage Payment and Collection Law, promissory estoppel and unjust enrichment.
The case is Eynon et al. v. United States Steel Corp., case number GD-20-003630, in the Court of Common Pleas for Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.
Jeff Burke is an attorney at MacElree Harvey, Ltd., working in the firm’s Employment and Litigation practice groups. Jeff counsels businesses and individuals on employment practices and policies, executive compensation, employee hiring and separation issues, non-competition and other restrictive covenants, wage and hour disputes, and other employment-related matters. Jeff represents businesses and individuals in employment litigation such as employment contract disputes, workforce classification audits, and discrimination claims based upon age, sex, race, religion, disability, sexual harassment, and hostile work environment. Jeff also practices in commercial litigation as well as counsels business on commercial contract matters.