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Shand v. Smith

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

September 23, 2019

VERONICA SHAND, Plaintiff,
v.
CHARLES E. SMITH LIFE COMMUNITIES, HEBREW HOME OF GREATER WASHINGTON, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Paul W. Grimm, United States District Judge.

         Veronica Shand, who is representing herself in this lawsuit, claims that, while she was working for Charles E. Smith Life Communities, Hebrew Home of Greater Washington (“Hebrew Home”) as a geriatric nursing assistant, her employer failed to grant her request for a religious accommodation. Compl., ECF No. 2. In response, she resigned, and she views her resignation as a constructive discharge. Id. at 1, 3. Believing that Hebrew Home’s denial of her request and the constructive discharge were in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (“Title VII”), Shand filed suit in state court, id., and Hebrew Home removed the suit to this Court, ECF No. 1. Hebrew Home has moved for summary judgment, arguing that it is a religious organization and therefore “exempt from Title VII’s prohibition against employment discrimination based on religious beliefs under 42 U.S.C. 2000e-1(a).” ECF No. 17.[1] Shand has filed a cross-motion for summary judgment, in which she objects to Hebrew Home “being exempt from [T]itle VII’s prohibition against employment discrimination based on religious belief.” Pl.’s Opp’n & Mot. 1. Because Title VII’s religious organization exemption applies to Hebrew Home, Defendant’s Motion is granted and Shand’s is denied.

         Standard of Review

         Summary judgment is proper when the moving party demonstrates, through “particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations . . . admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials, ” that “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a), (c)(1)(A); see Baldwin v. City of Greensboro, 714 F.3d 828, 833 (4th Cir. 2013). “A disputed fact presents a genuine issue ‘if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party.’” Cole v. Prince George’s Cty., 798 F.Supp.2d 739, 742 (D. Md. 2011) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). If the party seeking summary judgment demonstrates that there is no evidence to support the nonmoving party’s case, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to identify evidence that shows that a genuine dispute exists as to material facts. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 585–87 & n.10 (1986). The existence of only a “scintilla of evidence” is not enough to defeat a motion for summary judgment. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 251.

         While this Court is required to liberally construe documents that self-represented litigants file and hold them to a less stringent standard than those that attorneys draft, see Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007); Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976), the requirement of liberal construction does not mean that the Court can ignore a clear failure in the pleading to allege facts that set forth a claim currently cognizable in a federal district court, see Weller v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 901 F.2d 387, 391 (4th Cir. 1990). Rather, the Court must also abide by the “affirmative obligation of the trial judge to prevent factually unsupported claims and defenses from proceeding to trial.” Bouchat v. Baltimore Ravens Football Club, Inc., 346 F.3d 514, 526 (4th Cir. 2003) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Discussion

         Pursuant to Title VII, an employer cannot “discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s . . . religion.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1).

         Title VII is not without bounds however, and has long included an exemption for religious organizations in certain circumstances. Specifically, § 2000e–1(a) provides that:

This subchapter [of Title VII] shall not apply to ... a religious corporation, association, educational institution, or society with respect to the employment of individuals of a particular religion to perform work connected with the carrying on by such corporation, association, educational institution, or society of its activities.

Kennedy v. St. Joseph’s Ministries, Inc., 657 F.3d 189, 192 (4th Cir. 2011) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-1(a)). The term “employment” in this statute is “not limited to hiring and firing decisions.” Id. at 193. Rather, it covers claims that “arise from [an employee’s] ‘state’ of ‘being employed, ’” such as “discharge, harassment, and retaliation.” Id. (quoting Black’s Law Dictionary 9th ed.). Indeed, “§ 2000e-1(a) exempts religious organizations . . . from [employees’] claims of religious discrimination, ” id. at 196, as well as from claims of discriminatory discharge, id. at 192– 93.

         Failure to accommodate is a form of religious discrimination. See Rayyan v. Va. Dep’t of Transp., 719 Fed.Appx. 198, 205 (4th Cir. 2018) (citing Chalmers v. Tulon Co. of Richmond, 101 F.3d 1012, 1017 (4th Cir. 1996)). Consequently, if Hebrew Home is a religious organization, then it is exempt from both Shand’s failure to accommodate claim and her constructive discharge claim. See Kennedy, 657 F.3d at 192–93, 196.

         Neither Title VII, the Fourth Circuit, nor this Court has defined “religious organization” or “religious institution” for purposes of the religious organization exemption, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-1(a). Yet, the Fourth Circuit has held that, for purposes of the “ministerial exception” of the FLSA, which is “coextensive in scope” with the ministerial exception in Title VII (another exception to Title VII, available when the organization qualifies as a religious organization and the plaintiff qualifies as a minister), a religious organization is one whose “mission is marked by clear or obvious religious characteristics.” Shaliehsabou v. Hebrew Home of Greater Wash., Inc., 363 F.3d 299, 306, 310 (4th Cir. 2004); see also Curl v. Beltsville Adventist Sch.., No. GJH-15-3133, 2016 WL 4382686, at *8 (D. Md. Aug. 15, 2016) (citing Shaliehsabou).

         Hebrew Home describes itself as follows:

1. Hebrew Home is a nursing home located in Rockville, Maryland. See Ex. 1 (Declaration of Terri Tanner-Hill) at 3. Hebrew Home is a non-profit charitable and religious corporation exempt from taxation under ...

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