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Protos v. Volkswagen of America Inc.

argued: June 4, 1986.


On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh), Civil No. 84-1251.

Author: Adams

Before ADAMS, WEIS, and HIGGINBOTHAM, Circuit Judges


ADAMS, Circuit Judge

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights of 1964, employers are required to make reasonable accommodation for the religious practices of their employees. In this case, the district court ruled that Volkswagen of America, Inc. (Volkswagen) had violated the statute by refusing to accommodate the request of an assembly line employee to be excused from overtime work on Saturday, her Sabbath. This appeal requires us to consider whether the trial judge erred in determining that accommodation of the request would not cause the company undue hardship, and whether damages were correctly calculated. The company also challenges the constitutionality of the reasonable accommodation requirements. For the reasons that follow, we will affirm the court's decision in part but remand for a recalculation of damages.


Angeline S. Protos is a member of the Worldwide Church of God. Under the tenets of that church, the Sabbath lasts from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday. Work is prohibited during this time, and failure to observe the Sabbath is cause for excommunication.

On May 9, 1979, Protos was hired by Volkswagen to work one the assembly line of its plant in New Stanton, Pennsylvania. She was assigned to the Trim Department as an assembler; her task was to connect four color-coded wires to four connectors, and to attach a ground screw. At first, this job did not conflict with her religious principles, since the assembly line on which she worked operated from Monday through Friday and the workday ended before sunset. In August 1979, however, Volkswagen announced that in the upcoming months it would begin to schedule mandatory overtime work on a significant number of Saturdays.

Protos presented her supervisor with a note stating that as a member of the Worldwide Church of God she was unable to work on Saturdays. Her supervisor responded that while he did not believe she could be excused altogether from Saturday assignments, he would seek to devise some solution. Protos, however, made it clear that her religion prevented her from working on any Saturday. Subsequently, she provided her supervisor with a note from her minister explaining that in the Worldwide Church of God there were "no exceptions" to the prohibition of labor on the Sabbath.

Overtime work was scheduled for Protos' shift on September 22, October 6 and October 13, all Saturdays; Protos was absent on each of those days. The company took no immediate action, however, as the company's Industrial Relations Department considered the appropriate response. But following her failure to appear on the next scheduled Saturday, the Industrial Relations Department advised her supervisor that any future absences should be disciplined. When informed of this decision, Protos reiterated her position, and after her absence on December 8, the next schedules Saturday, Volkswagen issued a formal written warning, the first step in the company's graduated disciplinary system.

Protos then filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging that the company's action contravened Title VII, 42 U.S.C. 2000e et seq. (1982). That action prompted Volkswagen to undertake further inquiry which convinced the company of the sincerity of Protos's religious beliefs. As a result, the company explored the possibility of assigning Protos to a new post where Saturday overtime was not required. But there was a waiting list of 200 people for transfer to the Facilities Maintenance Department, where such a position was available, and all those on the list had greater seniority. Protos's transfer could not be arranged without a waiver by the employees union, a local of the United Autoworkers of America (UAW), of the seniority provisions of the collective bargaining agreement. On February 1, 1980, Volkswagen requested a waiver, but the union refused.

Saturday overtime was subsequently schedules on February 2, 23, and March 15. Protos did not appear for any of these days. The company invoked the escalating sanctions for unexcused absences provided for in its regulations, and, after suspending her twice, dismissed Protos on March 15, 1980.

On November 17, 1980, the EEOC issued a determination that there was reasonable cause to believe that Volkswagen had violated Title VII. On February 22, 1984, it issued a Notice of Right to Sue. Protos timely filed suit, and the case was tried, from July 16 to July 24, 1985, before a district judge sitting without a jury.

The principal issue before the district court was the degree of hardship that accommodating Protos's request for Saturdays off would have imposed on Volkswagen. Finding that "defendant suffered no economic loss" because of Protos's absence, and that the "efficiency, production, quality and morale" of her segment of the Trim Department and the entire assembly line remained intact without her, the district court ruled that Volkswagen could have accommodated her "without undue hardship and at no cost." Thus, the company was held to have violated the statute.

Volkswagen had also contended that Title VII's religious accommodation requirement contravened the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Following several federal appellate court decision, the court rejected that challenge. As relief, the court awarded Protos $73,911.36 in lost pay and benefits; it declined to deduct from that award unemployment benefits she had received during her time out of work. The court also ordered Protos reinstated ...

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