As a trial lawyer, there is nothing quite like the sheer panic of the interval between getting the call from the judge's chambers that the jury has a verdict and then hearing it read aloud in court. Friday, June 30, 2006, was no exception. The jury had been deliberating on the case since early Thursday afternoon. Todd Sturgill had sued UPS under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because UPS had failed to accommodate his religious beliefs as a Seventh-day Adventist and had fired him when he refused to work on Friday evening, his Sabbath. Now five days of trial and deliberations and nearly a year and a half of litigation was about be decided.
The events leading up to this verdict started back on December 17, 2004, when Sturgill was fired after returning to the warehouse with 35 packages; an hour's worth of work. Todd had converted to Adventism the prior May. Since July he had been telling UPS that he could not work past sundown on Friday. Despite this, the Monday following his returning the 35 packages he was fired for "job abandonment"—after 19 years with the company.
Todd had first started studying about Adventists and the Sabbath in April of 2004 when he attended an evangelistic seminar at the Springdale Seventh-day Adventist Church in northwest Arkansas. After church doctrinal studies he and his family were baptized on May 20 of that year. As a Seventh-day Adventist, one of the central tenets of his faith is observance of the biblical Sabbath, which includes cessation of work (Exodus 20:8-11). The Sabbath is celebrated from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday (Leviticus 23:32).
In July of 2004 Todd first realized that there might be a conflict between his job as a package car driver for UPS (the delivery drivers you see driving the trucks around town) and his faith. He realized that as summer turned to fall and winter and the sun set earlier, he would not have as long to deliver his packages on Friday. Further, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is UPS's "peak season," when UPS's volume increases.
Todd's wife was employed by Wal-Mart, and initially she had problems getting off work for Sabbath. The evangelist who studied with them gave her a form letter to send to Wal-Mart asking for accommodation, and Wal-Mart granted her request. Encouraged by this, Todd modified her letter to fit his situation and sent it to UPS.
He did not hear anything for several weeks. In September he followed up with another letter, but still did not get a response. The sun was starting to set sooner, and peak season was approaching. Todd asked his boss about the status of his request, and he was told he would check and get back to him. Later he called Todd into his office and asked the union steward to come also. The manager told Todd he had received a fax from UPS human resources and then read from it. It said the only accommodation UPS would give him was for Todd to wait for another job opening at UPS that did not pose a conflict and then bid on that job: in the meantime Todd would be expected to work the hours UPS wanted him to. When Todd asked for a copy of the fax his manager was reading from, he responded, "UPS does not pay me to make copies."
Despite the hostile response from the UPS corporate office and the manager, Todd's immediate supervisor worked with him so he could get off by sundown up until December 17. Todd had made arrangements that if he could get past the peak season when UPS supposedly did not allow employees to take time off, he would be able to take vacation time until spring to avoid any conflict. After that he would have until next peak season to bid on a different job at UPS that would not require him to work on Friday night. With nearly 20 years in the company he felt he would have the seniority to get such a job.
December 17 was a crucial day for Todd; it was the last Friday during the peak season Todd was concerned about. The next Friday was December 24, which is a light day for UPS. If he got past that Friday his Sabbath conflict with UPS would be eliminated, and he would not have to deal with the issue again.
The problem, though, was that Todd had a lot of packages to deliver that day. In fact, as he would learn during the trial, he had on average 100 more packages than all of the other UPS drivers less senior than he, far more than the 35 he would bring back that evening.
Todd called his immediate supervisor that Friday and was told no help was available that day and that he should call the manager, the one who was not paid to make copies. When he called, the manager asked him what he was going to do. Was he going to deliver the packages and keep his job, or bring them back and lose it? He told the manager he was going to do what he had been telling UPS since July; he would not work, past sundown.
For Todd, this presented a stark choice: his job or his faith. It was a decision he had already made in his mind. Consistent with what he had been telling UPS since his original request in July, he returned to the UPS center with 35 packages, an hour's worth of work, and checked out at 5:03 p.m. Sundown was at 5:04 p.m.
The following Monday when Todd arrived at work he was told to see the manager. The manager and the union steward were present. Todd was being fired for "job abandonment," for bringing back an hour's worth of work after nearly 20 years at UPS. He would file a grievance with the union, but after UPS made false representations to the grievance board, Todd's termination was upheld.
Todd quickly discovered that in northwest Arkansas it was next to impossible to find a job paying what he had made at UPS. He ended up working as a mortgage broker for a third of the salary he had made at UPS and with no benefits. He was forced to radically scale back his lifestyle, cash in his pension, and put his house on the market.
During the trial Todd argued that there were several ways UPS could have accommodated him so that he would never have had to bring back packages. UPS could have let him use an "option day" and simply not have come to work that day. UPS could have also given him less work so he would have been able to deliver all of his packages or transferred packages to another driver. All of these were things UPS did on a routine basis for employees for such things as going to Little League games, birthday parties, etc. In fact on the day UPS fired Todd Sturgill, they let other people off work completely with no explanation at all. However, when it was for a religious reason, UPS was unwilling to do it.
The reason UPS gave for not doing for Todd what it did for other employees was that they claimed Todd wanted a hard-and-fast "guarantee" from UPS that he would not have to work past sundown. The reality was that Todd wanted UPS to help him out only during peak season, and only this peak. The only person who ever talked about a "guarantee" was UPS.
The reason Todd did not need such a guarantee was that after the holidays were over he would be able to use his time off to accommodate himself. This would tie him over until he could transfer to another job at UPS that would always get him off well before sundown. Put another way, if UPS had not fired Todd on December 17 he would have been able to accommodate himself and would not have needed UPS's help ever again in the future. UPS was unwilling to do that and instead fired a nearly 20-year employee that its own management described as a "hard" and "good" worker; such was the hostility of this multibillion dollar company to its employee's desire to follow his conscience. To fully understand UPS's hostility to any religious accommodation, it is important to know that had Todd called to UPS that day and simply said, "I am not coming into work" he would have gotten an unexcused absence. Under the progressive discipline process he could have collected up to five of those (he had none when he was fired) before he would have even been given a formal warning. Because Todd tried to work with UPS and do his job, he was fired, even though if he had just not shown up he wouldn't have even been formally disciplined.
All of this was presented to the jury and now it was in their hands and they had reached a verdict. The jury filed into the courtroom looking somber. The foreman handed the verdict forms to the clerk. She read through them to make sure that they were filled out correctly. She then handed the forms to the judge, who read them and then handed them back to the clerk to read out loud.
The jury found in favor of Todd Sturgill on his claim that UPS failed to accommodate his religious belief. They awarded him every penny he asked for. They also awarded punitive damages to Sturgill in an amount double what he asked in compensatory damages. The jury did rule in favor of UPS on what is known as the "termination" claim. Essentially the jury decided that UPS did not fire Sturgill because he was an Adventist, only because he brought packages back.
Todd Sturgill still has a long road ahead of him, and his case is the exception. UPS will appeal this case, and it will probably take close to a year for the appeal to be resolved. While we are confident that Todd will prevail on appeal, the appeal is just more time when he is forced to live on a third of his salary and without benefits. UPS does not want to give him his job back despite the jury verdict. As of press time we are awaiting the court's ruling on our motion to reinstate Sturgill.
Need for Congressional Fix
Most employees who are fired are not as fortunate as Sturgill. Had he lived in a different part of the country, the courts there have interpreted the law in such a way that he would have probably lost. Further, because of the ambiguities of the law, other courts rule against employees on a routine basis.
This case is a perfect example of why Title VII needs to be fixed by Congress. UPS argued before the trial that they were not required to pay "one nickel" to accommodate Todd Sturgill. Nineteen years working for a company, and it is not willing to spend five cents to accommodate its employees' religious conviction!
Currently pending in Congress is the Workplace Religious Freedom Act (WRFA). This law would bring Title VII into line with other discrimination statutes and require employers to actually try to accommodate their employees and not let them fend for themselves.
While Todd Sturgill has prevailed to this point, Congress needs to make it clear to employers what their duties are. If WRFA were the law of the land, it would have been clearer to UPS that they needed to work with Sturgill; and both Sturgill and UPS would have been better off. Todd would still have his job, and UPS would have avoided a lawsuit and retained a veteran employee.
Todd R. McFarland is associate general counsel for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He writes from Silver Spring, Maryland. Much of his work is taken up defending religious accommodation cases like that of Todd Sturgill. Usually they do not share a first name!