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Boss Learns $21 Million Lesson in Honoring Employee Religious Beliefs

By Lisa M. Schaffer, Esq. | Last updated on

Park Hotels and Resorts, formerly known as Hilton Worldwide, was hit with a $21.5 million verdict for failing to honor an employee's civil and constitutionally protected right to practice her religion, even if that meant not working on Sundays. Due to federal guidelines, that amount will decrease to about $1 million. But the message being sent should be loud and clear: employers have to accommodate religious beliefs.

Working on Sunday Can Be Religious Discrimination

Marie Jean Pierre was a dishwasher at the Conrad Hotel in Miami, Florida. When hired back in 2006, she notified her employer that she couldn't work Sundays due to her religious beliefs as a Catholic missionary. All was fine, until 2009, when the hotel began scheduling her to work on Sundays. When Pierre told her employer she'd have to quit because of this, her Sunday request was again accommodated. However, in 2015, she started getting scheduled on Sundays again.

She again reminded her employer that she had religious reasons not to work on Sunday, and even had her pastor send a letter to her employer, reiterating the fact. Allegedly, her manager threw that letter away. Ultimately, in 2016, Pierre was fired for alleged misconduct, negligence and "unexcused absences." First, Pierre filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for discriminating against her religious beliefs, but ultimately filed this federal lawsuit for violating the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Punitive Damages Awarded by Jury Capped by Federal Law

The jury found in favor of Pierre, and awarded her $36,000 in lost wages and benefits, $500,000 for emotional distress, and $21 million in punitive damages. However, the jury didn't know that in federal cases, punitive damage awards are capped at $300,000. Therefore, after attorney's fees are paid, Pierre should see about $500,000 of that $21 million judgment. Though Pierre's lawyer believes that the jury truly wanted Pierre to have the full $21 million, he is not looking to challenge the award. Park Hotels and Resorts plans to appeal.

If you are concerned that your corporate practices may not adequately accommodate your workers' civil rights, contact a local employment lawyer. An experienced lawyer will be able to look at your policies and actions, and decide if they are in line with current relevant law.

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