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No interlocutory appeal of ruling that ‘Onionhead/Harnessing Happiness’ was religious belief

By Marjorie Johnson, J.D.

Two employers accused by the EEOC of reverse religious discrimination based on employees’ claims that supervisors imposed religious practices and beliefs upon them lost their bid to have the Second Circuit immediately review the summary judgment determination that “Onionhead” and “Harnessing Happiness” beliefs qualified as a religion under Title VII. Though the standard for determining when a nontraditional religion qualifies as a religion under Title VII is an issue of first impression, certification for an interlocutory appeal was not warranted, a federal district court in New York determined, finding the Second Circuit’s guidance would not materially advance the ultimate termination of the litigation and the issues did not involve controlling questions of law. Accordingly, the court denied their motion for interlocutory appeal (EEOC v. United Health Programs of America, Inc., April 14, 2017, Matsumoto, K.).

The EEOC brought this Title VII action on behalf of a group of former employees of United Health Programs of America and Cost Containment Group, who asserted amongst other things that they were subjected to reverse religious discrimination and a hostile environment. Supervisors purportedly imposed certain practices and beliefs on them, referred to as “Onionhead” and “Harnessing Happiness.”

Interlocutory appeal. In its prior order denying the employers’ motion for summary judgment, the district court ruled that Onionhead/Harnessing Happiness qualified as a religion under Title VII. The employers moved for certification of an interlocutory appeal, seeking to have the Second Circuit answer two questions: “(1) What factors should be considered in determining whether a set of nontraditional activities, beliefs, or practices constitutes a religion in a Title VII reverse religious discrimination case; and (2) If the two factors identified by the Second Circuit in Patrick v. LeFevre are the only factors to consider, what is the burden on a plaintiff to establish that an employer’s beliefs are sincerely held?”

Question of first impression. In concluding in its original order that Onionhead/Harnessing Happiness qualified as a religion in the context of the employees’ reverse discrimination claim, the district court noted that neither the Supreme Court nor the Second Circuit had addressed how to define religion under Title VII. Thus, it relied on the principles espoused by the Second Circuit in the context of the First Amendment, rejected the Third Circuit’s narrower test, and noted the EEOC’s expansive definition of religion and religious observance and practices, based on two Supreme Court decisions.

Summary judgment analysis. Quoting the Second Circuit’s Patrick decision, the court had identified the following two factors: “(1) whether the beliefs are sincerely held and (2) whether they are, in [the believer’s] own scheme of things, religious.” It also noted that it had doubts as to whether an employee claiming reverse religious discrimination must establish that an employer’s beliefs are sincerely held since this burden may “erect an unnecessarily high barrier to relief for plaintiffs seeking to establish reverse religious discrimination claims when the employer’s purported religion is nontraditional and the employer denies that its beliefs and practices are religious.”

Applying the two-part test, the court concluded that Onionhead/Harnessing Happiness qualified as a religion under Title VII because: “(1) to the extent that establishing an employer’s beliefs are sincerely held is a requirement for purposes of a reverse discrimination claim under Title VII, a reasonable jury could find that defendants’ actions in bringing the Onionhead/Harnessing Happiness beliefs, practices and materials into the workplace demonstrated the sincerity of defendants’ religious beliefs; and (2) the beliefs were religious as a matter of law.”

When can interlocutory appeal be granted? To win an interlocutory appeal, the employers were required to show that the district court’s order involved “a controlling question of law” as to which there was “substantial ground for difference of opinion.” They also had to show that an immediate appeal could materially advance the ultimate termination of the litigation. And even if they demonstrated that the criteria were met, their motion could still be denied since the Second Circuit has made clear that the use of this certification procedure should be strictly limited to “only exceptional circumstances.”

Not a “pure” question of law. They first failed to show that the issues for appeal presented pure questions of controlling law. They would require the Second Circuit to engage in an extensive study of the record since, even if it identified a different test to determine whether Onionhead/Harnessing Happiness is a religion, or determined that the employees had to prove that their employer’s religious beliefs were sincerely held, the issue of whether Onionhead/Harnessing Happiness would qualify as a religion would still turn on a review of the teachings, beliefs, and practices of the Onionhead/Harnessing Happiness system.

No “substantial ground for difference of opinion.” The employers also failed to demonstrate that there was conflicting authority or genuine doubt that the correct legal standard was applied. Though neither the Supreme Court nor the Second Circuit had addressed how to define religion for purposes of a Title VII reverse discrimination action, and there was uncertainty over whether employees must show that the employers’ beliefs were “sincerely held,” that was not enough.

Finally, they failed to show that immediate appeal from the district court’s prior order would materially advance the ultimate termination of the litigation. Even if the Second Circuit were to adopt a “novel test,” the district court would still be required to consult the record to determine whether Onionhead/Harnessing Happiness is a religion. Accordingly, permitting the case to proceed to trial would provide a more developed record for the appellate court to review.