The U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals rules that a Jewish school teacher is not protected under anti-discrimination law because of the “Ministerial Exception."
Milwaukee Jewish Day School, a private school dedicated to providing non-Orthodox Jewish education, hired Miriam Grusgott to teach Hebrew and Jewish Studies. She taught Hebrew from an integrated Hebrew and Jewish Studies curriculum, known as Tal Am, and attended community prayer sessions. Further, she discussed Jewish values with her students, taught about prayers and Torah portions, and discussed Jewish holidays and symbolism. However, she asserted that these portions of her lessons were taught from a cultural and historical perspective.
In 2013, Grusgott received treatment for a brain tumor and ceased working during her recovery. During her recovery, she suffered memory and cognitive issues. In 2015, a parent mocked Grusgott for her memory loss. Grusgott’s husband subsequently criticized the parent by email using Grusgott’s work email address. As a result, the school terminated Grusgott.
Grusgott sued the school under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), claiming that she was terminated because of her cognitive issues resulting from her brain tumor. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the school, determining that the “Ministerial Exception” to employment discrimination laws applied to Grusgott due to her religious role as a Hebrew and Jewish Studies teacher. Grusgott appealed the district court’s decision to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
Issue: Was Grusgott’s employment subject to the “Ministerial Exception” to employment discrimination laws, thus shielding the school from liability?
Holding: Yes. The court determined that, in the totality of circumstances, the substance of Grusgott’s job title and duties was one of teaching the Jewish religion to students and performing other important religious functions for the school.
Key Legal Points
The court considered two factors dispositive to the case. First, the school expected its Hebrew teachers to integrate religious teaching into their lessons, and hired Grusgott partly due to her substantial religious teaching experience. Second, Grusgott performed important religious functions such as teaching religious material and praying with her students even though she may not have thought these activities were religious or part of her formal job requirements.
The court noted potentially countervailing factors. For instance, one’s job title is not necessarily dispositive. Though Grusgott’s title was “grade school teacher” and “Hebrew teacher,” this did not prove, by itself, that she served a religious role. The Court also noted that Grusgott never held herself out in the community as an ambassador of the Jewish faith, or understood that her role would be perceived as a religious leader. These facts, however, did not suffice to overcome the other factors (noted earlier) which created the Exception.
In sum, the court ruled that the substantive duties and functions of a position outweigh formalistic factors, such as job title and how an employee holds him/herself out to the community. The importance of Grusgott’s position as a “teacher of faith” outweighed other countervailing factors.
We reported last week about a federal district court's temporary nationwide stay of pending FLSA rule changes, due to take effect December 1, 2016. (Our prior communication is in the blog post below). One of the firms involved in the litigation, representing a plaintiff group, has prepared a very good case summary with important practical recommendations and projections. They have shared it with a nationwide Charter School attorney association of which Lex-is Services is a member. We pass it on to you (linked here), and endorse its recommendations.
We recommend the clients consider postponing major changes to your overtime policies or, if you have already implemented major changes in anticipation of the original deadline, consider suspending those changes until there is clearer resolution (of which we will notify you).
As alway please contact us if you have additional questions.
This morning's news reports that a federal district court in Nevada has granted a nationwide injunction against implementation of Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA") overtime rule changes, originally set to take effect December 1. According to the report, the court ruled that the administration-initiated change "exceeds the authority the [Department of Labor] was delegated by Congress," and that implementation prior to a final adjudication would cause employers irreparable harm (one of the grounds required for an injunction). The Department of Labor is contemplating its options, and has has not indicated, yet, whether it will appeal the injunction.
We will keep you informed of any subsequent developments of significance.
A copy of the Associated Press report via WRAL.com is available here [link].