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By Patrick Dorrian
Jan. 29 — A fundamentalist Christian rejected for work by an Ohio employer after failing to provide his Social Security number, allegedly for religious reasons, has no bias claim under federal or state law, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled Jan. 28.
Affirming the dismissal of Donald Yeager's lawsuit against FirstEnergy Generation Corp., the court found that federal tax law requires all U.S. employers to collect the Social Security information of their employees. That rule isn't trumped by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act's prohibition against religious discrimination or the similar provisions of Ohio employment bias law, the court said.
The court noted that it was joining four other circuits in holding that “Title VII does not require an employer to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs if such accommodation would violate a federal statute.”
Yeager's federal and state claims fail for two reasons, the court said. FirstEnergy's obligation under the tax law prevented Yeager from showing a prima facie case of religious discrimination and accommodating Yeager's religious conviction would impose an undue hardship on the company.
In his March 2014 complaint, Yeager alleged that he “disclaimed and disavowed” his Social Security number upon turning 18.
Yeager asserted that a sincere belief of his fundamentalist Christian faith is to avoid or renounce the “mark of the beast,” or identification by any number. The Social Security system, he said, is an “enumeration at birth” program.
According to Yeager, FirstEnergy refused to hire him or terminated his employment for failing to provide a Social Security number even though he told the company he lacked a Social Security number because of a sincerely held religious conviction. FirstEnergy, he alleged, could have reasonably accommodated his religious belief without any undue hardship on its business.
The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio in June 2014 dismissed Yeager's complaint for failure to state a claim for relief under either Title VII or Ohio Revised Code Chapter 4112. Citing 26 U.S.C. § 6109 and federal regulations promulgated under that law, it found that the Internal Revenue Service “requires every employee to have a social security number,” so an employer's collection of that information is a legal requirement, not an employment requirement.
As a result, Yeager couldn't establish that he was forced to comply with a job rule that conflicted with his religious observance and thus couldn't prove a prima facie case under Title VII or Ohio law (123 FEP Cases 1400, 2014 BL 178986 (N.D. Ohio, June 27, 2014)).
Yeager appealed. He argued that the district court improperly dismissed his complaint and erroneously considered matters outside of the pleadings—federal tax law—in doing so.
The district court's recognition of internal revenue law and rules was not error, the Sixth Circuit said. It found that the Fourth, Eighth, Ninth and Tenth circuits have all held that employers can't be required to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs when doing so would violate another federal law.
“This conclusion is consistent with Title VII’s text, which says nothing that might license an employer to disregard other federal statutes in the name of reasonably accommodating an employee’s religious practices,” it wrote.
The court noted that the Fourth and Eighth circuits found that a statutory obligation, like federal tax law, isn't an “employment requirement.” Therefore, an employee claiming bias falters at the first step of the religious-accommodation analysis under Title VII and ORC Chapter 4112—showing a religious belief that conflicts with a job requirement. The Ninth and Tenth circuits, meanwhile, relied on the undue hardship analysis in rejecting such religious bias claims.
“These dual rationales arrive at the same, sensible conclusion,” the Sixth Circuit wrote, finding Yeager's complaint was properly dismissed on either basis.
To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Dorrian in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Text of the opinion is available at http://www.bloomberglaw.com/public/document/DONALD_J_YEAGER_PlaintiffAppellant_v_FIRSTENERGY_GENERATION_CORPO.
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