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Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Aldi

September 30, 2009

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



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

Judge Nora Barry Fischer

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Presently before this Court are Plaintiff Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's ("EEOC") and Plaintiff-Intervenor Kimberly Bloom's ("Bloom") (collectively "Plaintiffs") Renewed Motions for Judgment as a Matter of Law and Motions for New Trial. (Docket Nos. 162 and 166). The motions are fully briefed and the Court heard oral argument regarding them on August 14, 2009. After consideration of the parties' submissions and oral arguments, and for the reasons set forth herein, the Court DENIES Plaintiffs' motions.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND*fn1

Plaintiff Bloom describes herself as a Born Again Christian, and claims that her former employer, Aldi, Incorporated ("Aldi"), failed to accommodate her religious belief that it is a sin to work on the Sabbath, which, in accordance with her religious beliefs, falls on Sunday. The EEOC brought this action against Aldi for alleged discrimination in employment based on religion and for 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 P.S. §§ 955 and 963(c) ("PHRA").*fn2

At all times relevant to the instant litigation, Kelli Cooper was the Store Manager of Aldi's Uniontown, Pennsylvnia location. (Docket No. 49, at ¶ 24; Docket No. 55, at ¶ 55; Docket No. 178, at 38). 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). Cooper reported to Theresa Salandra, Aldi's District Manager who 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 was, at all relevant times, 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).

Bloom was hired as a casual cashier at Aldi's Uniontown location on November 5, 1998. (Docket No. 40, at ¶ 4; Docket No. 50, at ¶ 4).*fn3 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). The responsibilities of Aldi employees were laid out in the Aldi Employee Handbook (Tr. Exh. J-7). The Aldi attendance and punctuality policy required all cashiers to show up for their shifts and to be available to work their scheduled shifts between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. (Docket No. 176, at 141). The policy also provided for a mechanism by which cashiers could "call off" by notifying the manager of their inability to work due to "illness or other emergency reasons." (Docket No. 176, at 140-42). Informally, a store manager might try to accommodate particular scheduling preferences but such accommodations were temporary and not guaranteed, and in some cases were accompanied by informal understandings that others would be available to cover the shifts. For example, Cooper worked out temporary, non-guaranteed scheduling arrangements for other cashiers while Bloom was employed at Aldi, including allowing a casual cashier to work only on weekends for a brief period. (Docket No. 178, at 46, 79) Cooper had similarly tried to honor Bloom's requests when she said that she prefered not to be scheduled on Wednesdays, Thursdays, or Saturdays. (Docket No.178, at 42). Other Aldi District Managers scheduled around a variety of conflicts including an employee who played in a band on the weekend, and one who was full-time student who could not work during the week. (Docket No. 176, at 206-214). Alternately, cashiers could "swap" shifts with one another, a regular practice that Aldi management routinely approved. (Docket No. 176, at 142-43). At least one Uniontown employee used the swap system to swap for a Sunday shift, although she did so only after Bloom was no longer employed at Aldi, and she traded her Sunday shift for another Sunday shift. (Docket No. 178, at 82). The parties agree that before the events underlying this litigation, Bloom was a model employee with no employment problems. (Docket No. 176, at 37).

In 2005, faced with competition from stores that were open on Sundays, Aldi stores, including the Uniontown store, began operating on Sundays. (Docket No. 176, at 150). At a district managers' meeting in August of 2005, Anderson discussed with the district managers the importance of smoothly implementing the new Sunday store operations policy. (Docket No. 176, at 153-55). Anticipating employee's religious needs, Anderson told the managers that they could schedule employees so that they could attend religious services. (Docket No. 176, at 153). She also told them that any other requests for religious accommodation should be brought directly to her. (Docket No. 176, at 154-55). At that same meeting, Salandra suggested implementing a neutral rotation system for Sundays. (Docket No. 178, at 159). Subsequently, Salandra and Cooper decided that when the Uniontown store opened on Sundays they would implement the neutral rotation system, scheduling each cashier to work approximately six to eight Sundays per year. (Docket No. 178, at 159). During the fall of 2005, rumors circulated among the employees at the Uniontown store that the store would soon start opening on Sundays, and in November a sign was posted in the store window announcing the change. (Docket No. 177, at 59). That same fall, Cooper, the Uniontown Store Manager, was working at another Aldi store out-of-state, and she did not return until the end November. (Docket No. 178, at 57, 92). Many of the employees at the Uniontown store were unhappy with the Sunday openings and a number complained to Salandra and to Cooper once she had returned to her store.

(Docket No. 178, at 163, 58). There was no formal announcement or meeting held at that time to apprise Aldi's Uniontown employees of the new hours policy. (Docket No. 178, at 93).

In November of 2005, Bloom informed management at Aldi, specifically Salandra, that she was unable to work Sundays because of her religious beliefs. (Docket No. 177, at 60; Docket No. 178, at 174).*fn4 According to Bloom, during the course of this conversation, she explained her religious beliefs to Salandra, specifically regarding her belief that work on Sundays constitutes a sin. (Docket No. 177, at 60). In response, Salandra informed Bloom that she would discuss the request to not work Sundays with her immediate supervisor, Kim Anderson. (Docket No. 177 at 60; Docket No. 178, at 175). Salandra subsequently discussed Bloom's request along with the general complaints from many of the Uniontown employees with Anderson. (Docket No. 178, at 175-79).

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. 177, at 62-3). Aldi denies that Bloom ever discussed her inability to work on Sundays with Cooper. (Docket No. 178, at 48). 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).

On January 12, 2006 Bloom contacted Salandra because she had been scheduled to work on an upcoming Sunday. (Docket No. 178, at 181-82). Salandra spoke to her manager, Kim Anderson, on January 13, 2006 and then met with Bloom on the 14th or the 17th. (Docket No. 177, at 63; Docket No. 178, at 181-82). The parties dispute the date and the contents of this conversation. In the course of this conversation, Bloom again informed Salandra that she would be unable to work on Sundays because of her religious convictions. (Docket No. 41, Exh. L, at 37; Docket No. 178, at 183). Aldi contends that, during this conversation, Salandra informed Bloom that an "essential job function of an Aldi cashier is being available seven days a week" and that "Aldi can't give preferential treatment to one employee." (Docket No. 178, at 165). Bloom testified that, during this meeting, Salandra informed her that she was required to work Sundays, regardless of her religious convictions, that Aldi had concluded that they did "not have to accommodate [her] religious request," and that she had three choices: "either you work Sunday, you quit, or you're going to be fired." (Docket No. 177, at 63). 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 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 maintains that on Friday, January 20, 2006, she visited the Uniontown store in order to inform Christy Shimko, the manager on duty, that she would not be working that Sunday. (Docket No. 49, at ¶ 88, Docket No. 177, at 64). 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. 41, Exh. 10, at 7). Bloom claims that she then called Cooper on Saturday, January 21, 2006, to inform Cooper that she, 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. 177, at 64-5). Aldi claims that although Cooper understood from this conversation that Bloom might not be reporting for work on Sunday, January 22, she still did not think that Bloom had officially "called off" from work. (Docket No. 41, Exh. 10, at 7; Docket No. 178, at 50). 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 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, Docket No 177, at 65). At that meeting, Bloom claims that Salandra told her that "just because [she] was more religious than others, that didn't mean anything . . . to Aldi USA." (Docket No. 177, at 67). Both Bloom and Aldi agree that swapping shifts was not mentioned explicitly at the meeting. (Docket No. 177, at 8, Docket No. 178, at 166). 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). Bloom contends that she was given the impression that swapping was not available for Sundays and that "if somebody did cover for me, if I would have switched or covered for someone, however I missed my Sunday, I was going to be scheduled for the very next Sunday." (Docket No. 177, at 68-9).

Thereafter, by letter dated January 31, 2006, Bloom informed Salandra that working on Sunday violated her religious beliefs 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 claims that after she delivered the letter to Salandra's box at the Uniontown store, she spoke to her on the phone and Salandra said that she would get back in touch with her but never did. (Docket No. 177, at 70). The parties agree that over the course of all of these meetings, no one from Aldi ever explicitly informed Bloom that she could swap shifts on Sundays. (Docket No. 177, at 68; Docket No.178, at 172)

Bloom was next 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 she, Bloom, did not intend to show up for work on Sunday, February 5. (Docket No. 40, at ¶ 84; Docket No. 50, at ¶ 85).*fn5 Aldi contends that, at the end of the conversation, Cooper did not understand whether or not Bloom would be showing up for work on February 5 and concluded that Bloom had not properly "called off." (Docket No. 41, Exh.10, at 7). 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 at their request, 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" because she did not show up for work on two separate occasions. (Docket No. 40, at ¶ 91). Bloom, however, contends that Aldi did not terminate her based upon her failure to perform an essential job function. (Docket No. 50, at ¶ 91).Rather, Bloom avers that Aldi failed to accommodate her religious beliefs and then retaliated against her by discharging her when she refused to work on Sunday. (Docket No. 31, at 3-6).

II. 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 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. (Docket No. 31).

On June 25, 2007, Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment (Docket No. 38). After extensive briefing, this Court entered an order and opinion denying the motion for summary judgment in all respects on March 28, 2008. (Docket No. 67, 68). E.E.O.C. v. Aldi, Inc., Civ. A. No. 06-01210, 2008 WL 5429624 (W.D.Pa., Mar. 28, 2008).

A trial was held from January 6, 2009 to January 9, 2009. Following Plaintiffs' case-in-chief, Defendant moved for a directed verdict pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50. (Docket no. 177, at 170). The Court denied the motion, finding: (1) that the sincerity of Bloom's religious beliefs was a credibility question for the jury (Docket No. 178, at 7); (2) that Plaintiff had introduced sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find that Aldi had not made a reasonable accommodation (Id. at 12); (3) that Plaintiff had introduced sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find that Aldi's proffered reasons for dismissing her were pretextual (Id. at 16); (4) that Defendant had not established that it would suffer an undue hardship by accommodating Bloom as a matter of law (Id. at 18); and (5) that Defendant had not established that it should be exempted from a potential punitive damages claim because it had made a good faith effort to comply with Title VII. At the conclusion of all evidence, Defendant renewed its Rule 50 motion and Plaintiffs moved for a Rule 50 judgment as a matter of law on the failure to accommodate claim. (Docket No. 178 at 229-242). The Court denied both parties' motions, finding that the issues presented questions of fact and credibility for the jury to determine (Docket No. 179 at 2-17).

On a special verdict form, the jury found that Bloom had a sincerely held religious belief that conflicted with a job requirement at Aldi, but that Aldi reasonably accommodated her religious beliefs. (Docket No. 160). The jury further found that Bloom's religious beliefs were not a determinative factor in Aldi's decision to terminate her, nor was her request for a religious accommodation. (Id.)

Thereafter, on January 12, 2009, Bloom renewed her motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law and also moved for a new trial. (Docket No. 162). On January 15, 2009, the EEOC joined Bloom in said motions. (Docket No. 166). The parties' briefing on the motions concluded on April 27, 2009 and oral argument was held August 14, 2009.*fn6 (Docket No. 204).

Accordingly, the motions are ripe for ...


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