On November 2, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a complaint against Akebono Brake Corporation in the federal district court for the District of South Carolina on behalf of claimant Clintoria Burnett, alleging disparate treatment (failure to hire) and failure to accommodate a religious practice in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. EEOC v. Akebono Brake Corporation (D. S.C. 2016).
Burnett, an observant member of the Apostolic Faith Church of God and True Holiness—a Pentecostal Christian denomination—received an offer of employment to work as a washer inspector at one of Akebono’s South Carolina plants. This offer was made through a staffing agency. Upon learning that Akebono required her to wear pants to work, Burnett notified her staffing agency that she did not wear pants as a matter of religious belief. The staffing agency subsequently informed Akebono that Burnett requested to wear a skirt to work. After this was conveyed, Akebono allegedly instructed the staffing agency not to hire Burnett, and revoked her offer of employment. Burnett filed a claim with the EEOC, which found reasonable cause to believe Akebono violated Title VII.
The facts of this complaint are very similar to those in the EEOC’s litigation against Abercrombie & Fitch, wherein a Muslim teenager was denied employment at the retail clothier due to her religious need to wear a hijab to work. EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc. (U.S. 2015). In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately held that an employer need not have actual knowledge of an employee’s need for religious accommodation; acting with impermissible motive is sufficient. The distinction between Abercrombie and Akebono is that Akebono appears to have had actual knowledge of Burnett’s need for an accommodation.
MSEC will continue to monitor this case as it unfolds.