A New Jersey federal judge has rejected a civil rights claim filed by a former Port Authority worker who claimed religious discrimination because he was required to work on the Jewish Sabbath, reasoning that accommodating the schedule would violate his union’s collective bargaining agreement.
According to the Nov. 13 decision in Miller v. Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, the civil rights case was filed by Gary Miller, who worked for less than three months as a Port Authority of New York and New Jersey employee at Newark Liberty Airport in 2015.
After his termination, Miller sued the Port Authority, claiming religious discrimination and failure to accommodate his religious beliefs in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
As a unionized utility systems maintenance worker, Miller was held to a neutral rotational schedule and was sometimes required to work at times that conflicted with his observance of the Jewish Sabbath, which prohibits work from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday.
A few days after starting his new position, Miller requested that he not be required to work shifts that conflicted with the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. Miller claimed his request for an accommodation was rejected, but he did not recall whether anyone from the Port Authority ever spoke to him about his options to use various forms of leave on days of religious obligation, according to the decision.
However, the Port Authority provided evidence that Miller was offered the option to swap shifts with other employees and was told that he could use vacation, personal excused time, or compensatory time, the decision said, noting that Miller did use personal excused time for religious purposes on seven different occasions in January and February 2015.
That March, Miller submitted three separate requests for unpaid leave, which were rejected because he had exhausted his personal excused time. When he failed to report to work, he was marked absent without leave and was subsequently terminated, the court said.
Miller alleged the Port Authority’s accommodation was not reasonable and that they could have simply altered the rotation schedule by not scheduling him on Friday evenings or Saturdays.
The Port Authority moved to dismiss Miller’s claims on summary judgment, which U.S. District Judge Kevin McNulty of the District of New Jersey granted after concluding that Miller’s accommodation request would have violated the union’s collective bargaining agreement.
The employees in Miller’s unit are unionized and as a result, the Port Authority is bound by a collective bargaining agreement. Creating a permanent shift schedule for Miller exempting him from working on the Sabbath or the Jewish holidays without first offering that option to more senior employees would have violated the agreement’s seniority provision, McNulty reasoned in his decision.
“In short, Miller’s preferred accommodation would have placed Port Authority in violation of its collective bargaining agreement and required other, more senior employees to work less desirable additional Friday evening and Saturday shifts,” McNulty wrote.
“On this record, the religious accommodation offered by the Port Authority was reasonable. And because the blanket exemption proposed by Miller would have imposed more than a de minimis hardship, the employer was not required to accept it,” McNulty wrote.
Cheryl Alterman, an in-house attorney for the Port Authority who handled the case, declined to comment.
David Zatuchni, a Lambertville attorney who represents Miller, did not return a call for comment.