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Davis v. Fort Bend County

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

August 26, 2014

LOIS M. DAVIS, Plaintiff-Appellant
v.
FORT BEND COUNTY, Defendant-Appellee

Petition for certiorari filed at, 01/14/2015

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas.

For LOIS M. DAVIS, Plaintiff - Appellant: Raffi Melkonian, Wright & Close, L.L.P., Houston, TX; Darryl E. Scott, Houston, TX.

For FORT BEND COUNTY, Defendant - Appellee: Randall Weaver Morse, Assistant County Attorney, Mary Elizabeth Reveles, County Attorney's Office for the County of Fort Bend, Richmond, TX.

Before SMITH, WIENER, and PRADO, Circuit Judges. JERRY E. SMITH, Circuit Judge, dissenting.

OPINION

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EDWARD C. PRADO, Circuit Judge

Plaintiff-Appellant Lois M. Davis (" Davis" ) filed suit against her former employer, Defendant-Appellee Fort Bend County (" Fort Bend" ), alleging discrimination and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2000e-17 (" Title VII" ). The district court granted Fort Bend's motion for summary judgment on both claims. For the reasons stated below, we affirm in part and reverse in part.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Fort Bend hired Davis in December 2007 as a Desktop Support Supervisor responsible for supervising about fifteen information technology (" IT" ) technicians. Charles Cook (" Cook" ) was the IT Director at the time. In November 2009, he hired his personal friend and fellow church member, Kenneth Ford (" Ford" ), as Davis's supervisor.

On or about April 1, 2010, Davis filed a complaint with Fort Bend's Human Resources Department, alleging that Cook subjected her to constant sexual harassment and assaults soon after her employment began. Fort Bend placed Davis on Family Medical Leave Act (" FMLA" ) leave during its investigation of her complaint. The investigation substantiated Davis's allegations against Cook and ultimately led to Cook's resignation on April 22, 2010.

According to Davis, Ford immediately began retaliating against her when she returned to work from FMLA leave. She alleged that Ford " effectively" demoted her by reducing the number of her direct reports from fifteen to four; removed her from projects she had previously managed; superseded her authority by giving orders and assigning different projects and tasks directly to Davis's staff; removed her administrative rights from the computer server; and assigned her tasks that similarly situated employees were not required to perform.

In March 2011, Fort Bend prepared to install personal computers, network components, and audiovisual equipment into its newly built Fort Bend County Justice Center. All technical support employees, including Davis, were involved in the process. As the Desktop Support Supervisor, Davis and her team were to " assist with the testing of the computers [and] make sure all of the computers had been set up properly." The installation was scheduled for the weekend of July 4, 2011, and all employees were required to be present.

On June 28, 2011, Davis informed Ford that she would not be available to work the morning of Sunday July 3, 2011, allegedly " due to a previous religious commitment." Davis testified that " [i]t was a special church service, and that I needed to be off that Sunday[,] . . . but I would be more than willing to come in after church services." Davis also testified that she had arranged for a replacement during her

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absence, as she had done in the past. Ford did not approve her absence, stating that it " would be grounds for a write-up or termination." After Davis attended her church event and did not report to work, Fort Bend terminated Davis's employment.

Davis filed suit against Fort Bend, alleging retaliation and religious discrimination under Title VII, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The district court granted Fort Bend's motion for summary judgment on all claims and dismissed Davis's action. Davis timely appealed the district court's grant of summary judgment. On appeal, Davis challenges the grant of summary judgment on her Title VII claims, but not on her intentional infliction of emotional distress claim.

II. JURISDICTION AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

The district court had jurisdiction over Davis's Title VII claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(f)(3). Because this is an appeal of a final judgment of a district court, this court has jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291.

This court reviews the district court's ruling on summary judgment de novo, applying the same standard as the district court in the first instance. Turner v. Baylor Richardson Med. Ctr., 476 F.3d 337, 343 (5th Cir. 2007) (citation omitted). " Summary judgment should be granted when the moving party shows that 'there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.'" Willis v. Cleco Corp., 749 F.3d 314, 317 (5th Cir. 2014) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a)). A genuine dispute of material fact exists when the " 'evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.'" Royal v. CCC& R Tres Arboles, L.L.C., 736 F.3d 396, 400 (5th Cir. 2013) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986)).

" [A] party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of [the record] which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). The burden then shifts to " the nonmoving party to go beyond the pleadings and by her own affidavits, or by the 'depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file,' designate 'specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Id. at 324. The court must " draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party" and " refrain from making credibility determinations or weighing the evidence." Turner, 476 F.3d at 343 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). A party cannot " defeat summary judgment with conclusory allegations, unsubstantiated assertions, or 'only a scintilla of evidence.'" Id. (quoting Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (en banc) (per curiam)).

III. DISCUSSION

Davis argues that the district court erred when it granted summary judgment for Fort Bend as to her Title VII religious discrimination claim and as to her retaliation claim. We address each argument in turn below.

A. Davis's Title VII Religious Discrimination Claim

As explained below, the district court erred when it granted summary judgment in favor of Fort Bend on Davis's Title VII religious discrimination claim.

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Title VII prohibits an employer from discriminating against an employee on the basis of her religion. 42 U.S.C. § § 2000e-2(a)(1), 2000e(j). " An employer has the statutory obligation to make reasonable accommodations for the religious observances of its employees, but is not required to incur undue hardship." Weber v. Roadway Express, Inc., 199 F.3d 270, 273 (5th Cir. 2000).

This court analyzes a Title VII claim for a failure to accommodate religious observances under a burden-shifting framework akin to the McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 93 S.Ct. 1817, 36 L.Ed.2d 668 (1973), burden-shifting framework. The employee must first establish a prima facie case of religious discrimination. Antoine v. First Student, Inc., 713 F.3d 824, 831 (5th Cir. 2013). If she does, " the burden shifts to the defendant to demonstrate either that it reasonably accommodated the employee, or that it was unable to reasonably accommodate the employee's needs without undue hardship." Id. Here, a genuine dispute of material fact exists at both steps.

1. Davis's Prima Facie Case Survives Summary Judgment

Davis has presented evidence demonstrating a genuine dispute of material fact on her prima facie case and, thus, survives the first step. As we have previously stated:

To establish a prima facie case of religious discrimination under Title VII, the plaintiff must present evidence that (1) she held a bona fide religious belief, (2) her belief conflicted with a requirement of her employment, (3) her employer was informed of her belief, and (4) she suffered an adverse employment action for failing to comply with the conflicting employment requirement.

Tagore v. United States, 735 F.3d 324, 329 (5th Cir. 2013) (citing Bruff v. N. Miss. Health Servs., Inc., 244 F.3d 495, 499 n.9 (5th Cir. 2001)).

The parties dispute only the first element: whether Davis's observance of her church's July 3rd event was pursuant to her bona fide religious belief. Bona fide religious beliefs include " moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views." See, e.g., 29 C.F.R. § 1605.1 (citing United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163, 85 S.Ct. 850, 13 L.Ed.2d 733 (1965)). A court's inquiry is limited to focusing upon the individual's motivation. Specifically, a court's task is to decide " whether [the individual's beliefs] are, in his own scheme of things, religious." Seeger, 380 U.S. at 185 (emphasis added). In this regard, a belief is " religious" if it is " [a] sincere and meaningful belief which occupies in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by . . . God." Seeger, 380 U.S. at 176. Conversely, whether the belief itself is central to the religion, i.e., whether the belief is a true religious tenet, is " not open to question." Moussazadeh v. Tex. Dep't of Criminal Justice, 703 F.3d 781, 790 (5th Cir. 2012) (quoting Seeger, 380 U.S. at 185) (internal quotation marks omitted) (discussing the threshold inquiry into a person's religious belief under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act); see Tagore, 735 F.3d at 328-29 (applying Moussazadeh to a Title VII religious discrimination claim).

The sincerity of a person's religious belief is a question of fact unique to each case. Tagore, 735 F.3d at 328; Moussazadeh, 703 F.3d at 791 (" This is doubly true regarding sincerity." ). " The specific religious practice must be examined rather than the general scope of applicable religious tenets, and the plaintiff's 'sincerity'

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in espousing that practice is largely a matter of individual credibility." Tagore, 735 F.3d at 328; see also Moussazadeh, 703 F.3d at 791 (" [T]he important inquiry was what the prisoner claimed was important to him." (alteration in original) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted)).

This court has cautioned that judicial inquiry into the sincerity of a person's religious belief " must be handled with a light touch, or judicial shyness." Tagore, 735 F.3d at 328 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). " [E]xamin[ing] religious convictions any more deeply would stray into the realm of religious inquiry, an area into which we are forbidden to tread." Id. (alteration in original) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). Indeed, " the sincerity of a plaintiff's engagement in a particular religious practice is rarely challenged," and " claims of sincere religious belief in a particular practice have been accepted on little more than the plaintiff's credible assertions." Id.

We emphasize that this limited inquiry is being decided on summary judgment in this case. Thus, the issue here is whether there exists a genuine dispute of material fact whether Davis sincerely felt that she was religiously compelled to attend and participate in a special service at church on Sunday, July 3.

In Davis's view, her bona fide belief that she was religiously compelled to attend the event is supported by her testimony that she is a devout member of the Church Without Walls. Specifically, she refers this court to her testimony that she attends at least two services every weekend; she volunteers for the church; the pastor knows her and would vouch for her; and she believed strongly that she " needed" to be at church on Sunday, July 3, 2011, as a religious matter. As the nonmoving party on summary judgment, Davis contends that the court must draw the ...


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