A federal appeals court revived a Nigerian immigrant’s religious discrimination lawsuit alleging that his former employer denied his request for unpaid leave to travel to his home country to lead his father’s burial rites.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit on Wednesday reversed Southern District of Indiana Judge William Lawrence’s December 2012 summary judgment for the employer in Adeyeye v. Heartland Sweeteners.
Sikiru Adeyeye in 2010 asked sweetener manufacturer Heartland for several weeks of unpaid leave from his job as a materials handler. He told his bosses it was compulsory for him to lead the burial, or else “he and his family members would suffer at least spiritual death,” according to the opinion.
Heartland refused and fired Adeyeye after he made the trip anyway. He sued in August 2011 after filing an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint.
The panel held that Adeyeye’s two letters requesting the leave form the basis of a case that can move forward. Judge David Hamilton wrote the opinion, joined by judge Diane Sykes and Eastern District of Wisconsin Judge J.P. Stadtmueller, sitting by designation.
"Whether or not Adeyeye’s letters might have justified holding as a matter of law that they provided sufficient notice of the religious nature of his request (a question we do not decide), they certainly are sufficient to present a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether Heartland had notice of the religious nature of the request,” Hamilton wrote.
Adeyeye first requested five weeks of unpaid leave. When Heartland denied that, he asked for three weeks of unpaid leave plus his one week of earned vacation.
Hamilton noted the letters’ “multiple references to spiritual activities and the potential consequences in the afterlife,” unless Adeyeye performed certain rites.
“[T]he protections of Title VII are not limited to familiar religions,” he wrote. “[P]articipating in the rites and traditions identified by his father is a necessary part of Adeyeye’s religious observance.”
Jeff Macey of Indianapolis-based Macey Swanson & Allman, Adeyeye’s lawyer, said the ruling offers “a pretty fair statement of Title VII’s religious accommodation requirements.”
Neither Heartland nor its attorney—James Chapman II, an Indianapolis partner at Cleveland-based Benesch Friedlander Coplan & Aronoff—responded to requests for comment.
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