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Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Aldi

March 28, 2008

EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION, PLAINTIFF, AND KIMBERLY A. BLOOM, PLAINTIFF-INTERVENOR,
v.
ALDI, INC., DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Nora Barry Fischer

OPINION

The instant case involves the religious beliefs of an individual, who describes herself as "a Christian, Protestant, and a Born Again Christian," and who alleges that her former employer failed to accommodate her belief that it is a sin to work on the Sabbath or to ask another to work on the Sabbath, which, in accordance with her beliefs, falls on Sunday. Resulting therefrom, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") brought this action against Kimberly A. Bloom's former employer, Aldi, Incorporated ("Aldi"), for alleged discrimination in employment based on religion as well as retaliation, both in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e-2(a)(1) and 2000e-3(a) ("Title VII") and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, 43 Pa. C.S.A. §§ 955 and 963(c) ("PHRA"). Before this Court for consideration is Aldi's Motion for Summary Judgment [38]. For the foregoing reasons, said motion is hereby denied in all respects.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

As the law requires at this stage, the Court resolves all disputed facts and draws all inferences therefrom in favor of Plaintiff. However, unless otherwise indicated, the facts are undisputed. Bloom began working for Aldi's Uniontown location as a casual cashier on November 5, 1998. (Docket No. 40, at ¶ 4; Docket No. 50, at ¶ 4).*fn1 Aldi employs two types of cashiers- casual and permanent part-time. (Docket No. 56, at ¶ 51; Docket No. 60, at ¶ 51). Casual cashiers work less than twenty hours per week, while permanent part-time cashiers work more than twenty, but less than forty hours per week. (Docket No. 56, at ¶ 51; Docket No. 60, at ¶ 51). Additionally, casual cashiers are expected to work "as needed," meaning that, as a casual cashier, Bloom's schedule "fluctuated depending on how busy the store manager estimated the Uniontown store would be during that particular week." (Docket No. 40, at ¶ 7; Docket No, 50, at ¶ 7). At any particular time, Aldi stores, including the Uniontown location, are staffed with one or two cashiers. (Docket No. 40, at ¶ 3; Docket No. 50, at ¶ 3). Casual and part-time cashiers are responsible for essentially the same duties, including operating registers, cleaning, and stocking. (Docket No. 41, Exh. C, at 84; Docket No. 40, at ¶ 6).

At all times relevant to the instant litigation, Kelli Cooper was the manager of Aldi's Uniontown location. (Docket No. 49, at ¶ 24; Docket No. 55, at ¶ 55). Additionally, Pam Conn and Christy Shimko were employed as shift managers at Aldi's Uniontown location. (Docket No. 49, at ¶¶ 25-26; Docket No. 49, at ¶¶ 25-26). Theresa Salandra worked as Aldi's District Manager and supervised four Aldi locations in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. (Docket No. 49, at ¶ 21; Docket No. 55, at ¶ 21). As district manager, Salandra reported to Kim Anderson who, at all relevant times, was employed as Aldi's Director of Store Operations. As Director of Store Operations, Anderson oversaw operations at Aldi locations in Western Pennsylvania, Northern Ohio and New York. (Docket No. 49, at ¶¶ 22-23; Docket No. 55, at ¶¶ 22-23).

Beginning in the fall of 2005, Aldi stores began operating on Sundays. (Docket No. 40, at ¶ 24; Docket No. 50, at ¶ 24). Cooper informed Aldi Uniontown employees that, in order to cover the Sunday shifts, cashiers would rotate Sundays. (Docket No. 40, at ¶ 27; Docket No. 50, at ¶ 27). Specifically, Cooper informed Aldi Uniontown employees that each cashier would be required to work every seventh or eighth Sunday. (Docket No. 40, at ¶ 28; Docket No. 50, at ¶ 28).

Thereafter, in November of 2005, Bloom informed management at Aldi, specifically Salandra, that she was unable to work Sundays as a result of her religious beliefs.*fn2 (Docket No. 49, at ¶ 7; Docket No. 60, at ¶ 7). According to Bloom, during the course of this conversation, she explained her religious beliefs to Salandra, specifically regarding her belief that work on Sundays constituted a sin. (Docket No. 56, at ¶ 47). In response, Salandra informed Bloom that she would discuss Bloom's request to not work Sundays with her (Salandra's) managers. (Docket No. 40, at ¶ 47; Docket No. 50, at ¶ 47). Salandra subsequently discussed Bloom's request with her immediate supervisor, Kim Anderson. (Docket No. 40, at ¶ 49; Docket No. 50, at ¶ 49). Salandra met again with Bloom in January of 2006. (Docket No. 40, at ¶ 50; Docket No. 50, at ¶ 50). The parties dispute the contents of this conversation. Id. In the course of this conversation, Bloom again informed Salandra that she would be unable to work on Sundays because her religious convictions prohibited it. (Docket No. 41, Exh. L, at 37). Aldi contends that, during this conversation, Salandra informed Bloom that she would be required to work Sunday shifts as an "essential part of her job function." (Docket No. 40, at ¶ 50). Bloom contends that, during this meeting, Salandra informed Bloom that she was required to work Sundays, regardless of her religious convictions. (Docket No. 50, at ¶ 50). The parties agree, however, that during the course of Bloom's meeting with Salandra, Salandra offered to allow Bloom time off on Sunday mornings to attend to church or other observation, but that Bloom would not be permitted to never work on Sunday. (Docket No. 49, at ¶ 86; Docket No. 55, at ¶ 86).

Bloom also contends that subsequent to this meeting with Salandra, she informed Cooper, her immediate supervisor, that she would be unable to work on Sundays due to her religious beliefs and that neither Salandra nor Cooper ever addressed the matter with Bloom after these conversations. (Docket No. 49, at ¶¶ 76-77). Aldi denies that Bloom ever discussed with Cooper that Bloom could not work Sundays. (Docket No. 55, at ¶ 76). The parties agree, however, that Bloom was then scheduled to work Sunday, January 22, 2006. (Docket No. 49, at ¶ 77; Docket No. 55, at ¶ 77). Bloom alleges that on Friday, January 20, 2006, she visited Aldi in order to inform Shimko that she would not be working on Sunday. (Docket No. 49, at ¶ 88). Aldi contends that, while Bloom did discuss her Sunday shift with Shimko on January 20, Shimko did not take Bloom off the schedule because at that time Bloom had not properly "called off." (Docket No. 55, at ¶ 88). Bloom further alleges that she called Cooper on Saturday, January 21, 2006, to inform Cooper that Bloom would not be coming to work on January 22 because of her religious beliefs and that, on that same date, Aldi scheduled another cashier to work on Sunday. (Docket No. 49, at ¶ 89; Docket No. 50, at ¶ 72). Aldi denies that Cooper understood from this conversation that Bloom would not be reporting for work on Sunday, January 22. (Docket No. 55, at ¶ 89). The parties agree that, on Sunday, January 22, Bloom did not report to work. (Docket No. 40, at ¶ 76; Docket No. 50, at ¶ 76).

On Monday, January 23, 2006, Salandra called Bloom in order to schedule a meeting with her on January 27 in order "to discuss [Bloom's] failure to work her scheduled Sunday shift." (Docket No. 40, at ¶79, Docket No. 50, at ¶ 79). At the January 27 meeting, Salandra informed Bloom that she was required to work Sundays as it "was an essential function of the job." Aldi suggests that during the course of this discussion, Bloom knew and understood that she had the option of "swapping" shifts with another cashier. (Docket No. 40, at ¶ 80; Docket No. 50, at ¶ 80). Thereafter, by letter dated January 31, 2006, Bloom informed Salandra that it violated her religious beliefs to work on Sunday and she requested that Aldi accommodate her request that she not be scheduled to work on Sundays. (Docket No. 51, Exh. 18). In the letter, Bloom suggests possible accommodations, including that instead of Sundays, she be scheduled to work holidays or other days of the week. Id.

Bloom was then scheduled to work on Sunday, February 5, 2006. (Docket No. 56, at ¶ 10; Docket No. 60, at ¶ 10). On Saturday, February 4, 2006, Bloom called Cooper to inform her that Bloom did not intend to show up for work on Sunday, February 5. (Docket No. 40, at ¶ 84; Docket No. 50, at ¶ 85).*fn3 The parties dispute whether Cooper understood that Bloom had called off in conformity with Aldi's policies. Bloom contends that Aldi understood that Bloom had "called off." (Docket No. 50, at ¶ 85). However, Aldi contends that Cooper did not understand, at the end of her conversation with Bloom, whether or not Bloom would be showing up for work on February 5 and concluded that Bloom had not properly "called off." (Docket No. 40, at ¶¶ 87-88). The parties do not dispute that Bloom did not work on Sunday, February 5. (Docket No. 40, at ¶ 89; Docket No. 50, at ¶ 89).

On February 7, 2006, Bloom met with Salandra and Cooper, who, in the course of this meeting, terminated Bloom's employment. (Docket No. 40, at ¶ 91; Docket No. 50, at ¶ 91). Aldi contends that Bloom was terminated for failure to perform an "essential job function." (Docket No. 40, at ¶ 91). Bloom, however, contends that Aldi did not terminate her based upon her failure to perform an essential job function, as evidenced by the record. (Docket No. 50, at ¶ 91).

PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

On September 11, 2006, the EEOC commenced the instant action by filing a Complaint (with jury demand) against Aldi pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title I of the of the Civil Rights Act of 1991in order "to correct unlawful employment on the basis of religion and to provide appropriate relief to Kimberly A. Bloom who was adversely affected by such practices." (Docket No. 1). On September 15, 2006, Kimberly A. Bloom filed a Motion to Intervene as of Right, which the Court granted on October 16, 2006. On October 13, 2006, Defendant Aldi filed its Answer. On October 17, 2006, Bloom filed her Complaint in Intervention, in which she joined Plaintiff EEOC in seeking legal and equitable relief and also asserted her own claims for religious discrimination and retaliation pursuant to Title VII, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e-2(a)(1) & 2000e-3(a), respectively. On November 15, 2006, Defendant Aldi filed its Answer to Complaint in Intervention.

On March 28, 2007, Bloom filed an Amended Complaint in Intervention, in which, based on the same set of facts, she added a third count for religious discrimination and retaliation in violation of the PHRA. On the same day, Defendant Aldi filed Defendant Aldi, Inc.'s Answer to Plaintiff-Intervenor Kimberly Bloom's Amended Complaint in Intervention.

On April 6, 2007, the instant matter was reassigned to the undersigned Judge. On June 20, 2007, the Court held a status/settlement conference, at which the parties agreed to proceed to mediation before one of the Magistrate Judges. Accordingly, on June 25, 2007, the Court issued an Order referring the instant matter to Magistrate Judge Lisa Pupo Lenihan for the purposes of mediation during the week of August 20, 2007. On August 23, 2007, the parties mediated this case before Magistrate Judge Lenihan, but the case did not settle.

Concurrently, on June 25, 2007, Defendant filed the instant motion for summary judgment (Docket No. 38) ("Defendant's motion"). On July 26, 2007, Bloom filed her Plaintiff-Intervenor's Brief in Opposition to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. (Docket No. 53). The EEOC filed its Plaintiff EEOC's Response Brief in Opposition to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment on August 15, 2007. (Docket No. 57). One week later, Defendant filed Defendant Aldi, Inc.'s Reply to Oppositions to Motion for Summary Judgment on August 22, 2007.*fn4 (Docket No. 62) ("Defendant's reply"). Subsequently, on November 29, 2007, Defendant filed Defendant Aldi, Inc.'s Notice of Supplemental Authority in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 64) ("Defendant's Notice"). On December 4, 2007, Bloom filed her Plaintiff-Intervenor's Response to Defendant's Notice of Supplemental Authority in Support of its Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 65) and on December 7, 2007, the EEOC filed Plaintiff EEOC's Response in Opposition to Defendant's Notice of Supplemental Authority in Support of its Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 66).

Needless to say, the instant motion is fully briefed and ripe for disposition.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Summary judgment may only be granted "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). Pursuant to Rule 56, the Court must enter summary judgment against the party "who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986).

In evaluating the evidence, the Court must interpret facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and draw all reasonable inferences in his favor. Watson v. Abington Twp., 478 F.3d 144, 147 (3d Cir. 2007). Initially, the burden is on the moving party to demonstrate that the evidence in the record creates no genuine issue of material fact. Conoshenti v. Public Serv. Elec. & Gas Co., 364 F.3d 135, 140 (3d Cir. 2004). The dispute is genuine if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. McGreevy v. Stroup, 413 F.3d 359, 363 (3d Cir. 2005). While the non-moving party will bear the burden of proof at trial, the party moving for summary judgment may meet its burden by showing that the admissible evidence in the record would be insufficient to carry the non-movant's burden of proof at trial. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322-323. Once the moving party satisfies its burden, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party, who must go beyond its pleadings, and designate specific facts by the use of affidavits, depositions, admissions, or answers to interrogatories showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Id. at 324. The nonmoving party "cannot simply reassert factually unsupported allegations contained in its pleadings." Williams v. Borough of West Chester, 891 F.2d 458, 460 (3d Cir. 1989).

ANALYSIS

In its motion, Defendant requests summary judgment as to all Plaintiff's counts, i.e., her religious discrimination claim as well as her retaliation claim under both Title VII and the PHRA. First, as to her religious discrimination claim, Aldi argues that her claim for failure to accommodate her religious belief fails because (1) Aldi offered Bloom two reasonable accommodations which she unreasonably refused; (2) Bloom's request for exemption from working all Sundays imposed an undue hardship on Aldi; and (3) Bloom's desire not to work on all Sundays was a personal preference as opposed to a sincerely-held religious belief.*fn5 Second, as to her retaliation claim, Aldi argues that Bloom cannot show that her termination was discriminatory or retaliatory "given the undisputed fact that she was terminated for legitimate and non-discriminatory reason that she failed to work two Sunday shifts for which she was scheduled." (Docket No. 38, at 2). Third and finally, Aldi argues that Bloom cannot recover punitive damages in light of its anti-discrimination policies and training program. The Court will address Defendant's arguments in turn.

A. Religious Discrimination Claim (failure to accommodate)

Title VII and the PHRA make it illegal for an employer to discriminate against an individual with respect to compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment on the basis of religion. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a); 43 Pa. C.S.A. § 955(a). The two acts are substantially similar, and Pennsylvania courts generally interpret the PHRA consistent with Title VII. See Weston v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 251 F.3d 420, 425 n.3 (3d Cir.2001) ("The proper analysis under Title VII and the [PHRA] is identical as Pennsylvania courts have construed the two acts interchangeably"). Accordingly, the Court will analyze Plaintiff's religious discrimination claims under Title VII and the PHRA together.

Under Title VII, employees may assert two different theories of religious discrimination: disparate treatment and failure to accommodate. See Abramson v. William Paterson College of New Jersey, 260 F.3d 265, 281 (3d Cir.2001). Here, neither Plaintiff EEOC nor Plaintiff-Intervenor Bloom have alleged disparate treatment but only a failure to accommodate on behalf of Aldi, and thus, the Court will consider the EEOC's and Bloom's claims under this latter theory.

1. Prima Facie Case

To establish a prima facie case for failure to reasonably accommodate religious beliefs or practices, an employee must show that she: (1) holds a sincere religious belief that conflicts with a job requirement; (2) informed her employer of the conflict; and (3) was disciplined for failing to comply with the conflicting requirement. Shelton v. University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey, 223 F.3d 220, 224 (3d Cir. 2000). Here, Defendant Aldi challenges the first element of Plaintiff's prima facie case, but apparently concedes the second and third prongs.*fn6

Defendant Aldi argues that "Bloom has not shown that her desire to spend Sundays with family was a sincere religious belief as opposed to merely a personal preference." (Docket No. 39, at 11). In response, the EEOC asserts that genuine issues of material fact preclude summary judgment as the sincerity of Bloom's religious belief insofar as she has observed Sunday as the Sabbath for an extended period of time and she has consistently declined to work thereon. (Docket No. 57, at 7-8). Bloom essentially asserts the same in her response.

While Defendant does not specifically articulate as much, the Court reads Defendant's argument as challenging both the sincerity of Bloom's belief, (see Docket No. 39, at 12) (asserting that, before Aldi was open on Sundays, Bloom previously requested not to work on Saturdays because she wanted to spend time with family), and whether her belief constitutes a "religious belief," (see Docket No. 39, at 12) (asserting that Bloom does not attend church on Sundays, but spends time with her family, reads the Bible, and watches a preacher on television). See Bushouse v. Local Union 2209, United Automobile, Aerospace & Agricultural Implement Workers of America, 164 F.Supp.2d 1066, 1076 (N.D. Ind. 2001) ("Given the purpose of the protections and special accommodations afforded by Title VII, the court concludes that Title ...


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