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A longtime employee of Consol Energy Inc. is entitled to over half a million dollars in damages because of the coal company's failure to accommodate his religious concerns about a handprint scanner, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.
Beverly Butcher Jr. was a coal miner for 37 years at the Robinson Run Mine owned by Consol. In the summer of 2012, Consol implemented a biometric hand-scanner system at the mine to better monitor the attendance and work hours of its employees. The handprint scanner system required each employee checking in or out of a shift to scan his or her right hand; the shape of the hand was then linked to the worker's unique personnel number. As compared to the previous system, where the foreman manually tracked the time worked by employees, the scanner was thought to allow for more accurate and efficient reporting.
During his employment, Butcher was by all accounts a satisfactory employee, with no record of poor performance or disciplinary problems. Butcher also is a lifelong evangelical Christian. An ordained minister and associate pastor, he has served in a variety of capacities at his church: as a member of the board of trustees, as part of the worship team, as a youth worker and as a participant on mission trips.
Butcher believed that participating in the hand-scanner system presented a threat to his religious commitments. He believes in the authenticity and authority of the Scriptures and that the Antichrist's followers are condemned to everlasting punishment. Butcher's understanding of the biblical Book of Revelation is that the "Mark of the Beast" brands followers of the Antichrist, allowing the Antichrist to manipulate them. The use of Consol's hand-scanning system, Butcher feared, would result in him being so marked. Butcher believed that, even without any physical or visible sign, his willingness to undergo the scan could lead to his identification with the Antichrist.
Although Consol provided an alternative to employees who could not use the hand scanner for nonreligious reasons, such as hand injuries, it refused to accommodate Butcher's objection. Two individuals with hand injuries were permitted to type in their personnel numbers on a keypad rather than use the hand scanner. However, Consol only offered to allow Butcher to use his left hand when using the handprint scanner, asserting that this would remove the concern, as the Book of Revelation described the "Mark of the Beast" as being on the forehead and right hand.
Feeling that he was forced to choose between his religious commitments and his continued employment, Butcher retired under protest. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed suit on his behalf, alleging that Consol violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by constructively discharging Butcher instead of accommodating his religious beliefs.
[SHRM members-only toolkit: Accommodating Religion, Belief and Spirituality in the Workplace]
At trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the EEOC. Butcher was awarded $150,000 in compensatory and punitive damages. The court also awarded Butcher $436,860 in front and back pay and lost benefits, and issued a permanent injunction against Consol, requiring the company to refrain from future violations of Title VII's reasonable accommodation provision and to provide management training on religious accommodations. The district court declined to award punitive damages.
After judgment was entered, Consol filed post-verdict motions for judgment as a matter of law, for a new trial, and to amend the district court's award of front pay, back pay and lost benefits. The district court denied all three motions, and Consol timely appealed to the 4th Circuit.
On appeal, Consol argued that it did not fail to reasonably accommodate Butcher's religious beliefs. Consol asserted that because its handprint scanner would not leave a physical mark on Butcher's hand, the EEOC failed to establish that Butcher could not use the scanner system without compromising his religious beliefs regarding the "Mark of the Beast."
The court disagreed, finding that Butcher's belief was sincere that participation in the scanner system—with or without a tangible mark—was a showing of allegiance to the Antichrist. The court ruled that it could not question Butcher's religious understandings. Rather, because Butcher presented evidence that his beliefs were sincerely held and conflicted with Consol's employment requirement, the beliefs should have been accommodated.
Consol further argued that Butcher was not constructively discharged because the company did not deliberately cause him to retire. The court disagreed, however, finding that a showing of deliberateness was not required and that Butcher only had to show that Consol had rendered his continued employment intolerable.
The EEOC challenged the district court's rejection of punitive damages. The court of appeals agreed with the district court, however, that the EEOC had not shown sufficient malicious intent on Consol's part to support punitive damages.
EEOC v. Consol Energy Inc., 4th Cir., No. 16-1406 (June 12, 2017).
Professional Pointer: Many employers are not aware of their duty to reasonably accommodate religious objections. That duty exists if the religious beliefs are sincerely held. The employer must treat the beliefs as legitimate and cannot avoid accommodation by questioning them.
Jeffrey Rhodes is an attorney with Doumar Martin in Arlington, Va.
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