Wal­greens faces claim of re­li­gious dis­crim­i­na­tion

Seventh-day Ad­ven­tist fired for miss­ing work on a Sat­ur­day seeks hear­ing with high court

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - LIFE TRIBUTES - TRI­BUNE NEWS SER­VICE By Cha­beli Her­rera

OR­LANDO, Fla. — In 2011, Dar­rell Pat­ter­son was fired from his job at an Or­lando Wal­green’s Cus­tomer Care Cen­ter for miss­ing work on a Sat­ur­day.

Pat­ter­son is a Seven­th­day Ad­ven­tist, a Protes­tant Chris­tian de­nom­i­na­tion that ob­serves Sat­ur­day, the seventh day of the week, as the Sab­bath. Prac­tic­ing Seven­th­day Ad­ven­tists are pro­hib­ited from work­ing from sun­down Fri­day to sun­down Sat­ur­day — some­thing Pat­ter­son’s em­ploy­ers at Wal­greens knew.

So when they fired him, Pat­ter­son sued, claim­ing re­li­gious dis­crim­i­na­tion. But the courts sided with Wal­greens at both the dis­trict and ap­peal lev­els, say­ing the em­ployer had done enough to ac­com­mo­date Pat­ter­son in his six years of em­ploy­ment with the phar­macy chain.

How much is enough and what con­sti­tutes re­li­gious dis­crim­i­na­tion may now be some­thing for the U.S. Supreme Court to con­sider. Pat­ter­son has filed the case with the na­tion’s high­est court, seek­ing the first court de­ci­sion in 30 years to ad­dress the Sab­bath.

“A per­son that has a re­li­gious con­vic­tion has re­ally been put in a place to make a choice be­tween their re­li­gious con­vic­tion and bring­ing home a pay­check and tak­ing care of their fam­i­lies — a re­ally pointed and harsh predica­ment to put any­body in,” Pat­ter­son said.

From the time he be­gan his em­ploy­ment with Wal­greens in 2005, he said Pat­ter­son said he was clear with his em­ploy­ers that he would be un­avail­able dur­ing the Sab­bath pe­riod, in­di­cat­ing it in his em­ploy­ment ap­pli­ca­tion and via a let­ter from his pas­tor. He also signed an ac­knowl­edg­ment say­ing he un­der­stood he “must be avail­able to work any sched­uled shift,” ac­cord­ing to the Or­lando dis­trict court’s 2016 de­ci­sion.

Over the years, Pat­ter­son’s job sched­ule rarely co­in­cided with Sat­ur­day, and when it did, Wal­greens al­lowed him to swap sched­ules with his co-work­ers. On two in­stances, he was writ­ten up for leav­ing work on Fri­day evenings.

But in 2011, the Or­lando cus­tomer care of­fice got an in­flux of 40 new em­ploy­ees due to an­other branch’s clo­sure, and Pat­ter­son was one of two train­ing man­agers on hand to pro­vide emer­gency train­ing to the new group.

A fail­ure to ad­e­quately — and quickly — train those peo­ple could have im­peded “pa­tients’ ac­cess to their med­i­ca­tion and sub­ject Wal­greens to the risk of breach­ing its con­trac­tual obli­ga­tions and fac­ing sig­nif­i­cant fi­nan­cial penal­ties,” the dis­trict court ruled.

Failed at­tempts to swap his shift that Sat­ur­day led Pat­ter­son to be sent home from work the fol­low­ing Sun­day. On Mon­day, he was of­fered a role as a cus­tomer care rep­re­sen­ta­tive — a de­mo­tion from his cur­rent po­si­tion — that couldn’t guar­an­tee that he’d have Satur­days off, Pat­ter­son said.

He de­clined and was fired shortly there­after.

In the 19 months he spent un­em­ployed — “not be­ing able to turn on the AC for two sum­mers liv­ing in Flor­ida,” he said — Pat­ter­son filed a dis­crim­i­na­tion charge with the Equal Em­ploy­ment Op­por­tu­nity Com­mis­sion be­fore be­ing cleared to sue in 2014.

Since, the courts have sided with Wal­greens, ar­gu­ing that the com­pany tried to ac­com­mo­date Pat­ter­son enough, at least, to sat­isfy its du­ties un­der Ti­tle VII of the Civil Rights Act. Wal­greens de­clined to com­ment for this story cit­ing pend­ing lit­i­ga­tion.

Get­ting on the Supreme Court’s cal­en­dar is no easy feat, but Pat­ter­son’s at­tor­ney, Todd McFar­land, said he be­lieves Pat­ter­son may have a good chance of be­ing heard be­cause his case ad­dresses an is­sue the court hasn’t re­vis­ited since 1986.

“Any time you file a pe­ti­tion, it’s a long shot.” McFar­land said. “We think this case has a good a case as any — even bet­ter than most.”

That’s be­cause in its 1986 An­so­nia Board of Ed­u­ca­tion v. Philbrook rul­ing, the Supreme Court said em­ploy­ers must rea­son­ably ac­com­mo­date em­ploy­ees’ re­li­gious be­liefs, as long as the ac­com­mo­da­tion doesn’t cause “un­due hard­ship” to the em­ployer’s busi­ness.

Pat­ter­son and his at­tor­neys be­lieve the court needs to pro­vide fur­ther guid­ance on this point. For its part, Wal­green ar­gued in court that it be­lieves it could suf­fer “un­due hard­ship” in the fu­ture if the stan­dard is changed.

The court will de­cide in late Novem­ber if it will hear Pat­ter­son’s case.

“It’s re­ally not about me and it never re­ally has,” he said. “This is re­ally a ques­tion about the free­dom to wor­ship freely in this coun­try.”

Dan We­ber / TNS

Af­ter be­ing fired from a Wal­greens for miss­ing work, Dar­rell Pat­ter­son, a Seventh-day Ad­ven­tist, wants to take his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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