Supreme Court Takes on Eight New Cases, One about Religious Employee Accommodations

The Supreme Court recently agreed to consider what employers should be required to do to accommodate their religious employees, among eight cases that were added to its docket.

The cases are anticipated to be argued in April. Justices will consider what accommodations employers must make for their spiritual employees in one case involving a former postal employee. The case will be considered after several cases involving religious plaintiffs have fared well in court. 

Under a federal law concerning civil rights, employers can’t discriminate against any employee because of their religion. The law states employees’ religious practices must be accommodated unless the employer can demonstrate that it is creating an “undue hardship” to the business.

Justices are being asked to reconsider a Supreme Court case from 1977 that challengers claim lower courts almost always side with the employer “whenever an accommodation would impose any burden.”

The case the justices will hear involves a former postal worker in Pennsylvania, Gerald Groff. Groff, a Christian, said his religious beliefs require him not to work Sundays. While Groff’s bosses initially accommodated him but then ended the accommodations. Groff eventually resigned and filed a suit against the post office. So far, two lower courts have ruled against him. 

Other cases the justices will be hearing include:

—A case involving a 94-year-old woman from Minnesota who fell behind on her property taxes and then had her home seized by local authorities. 

After Hennepin County seized Geraldine Tyler’s home, the county sold it for $40,000 as payment for around $15,000 in penalties, costs, interest, and property taxes. However, the county kept all of the money. 

Lawyers for Tyler say the practice, which is a version used in around a dozen states, violates two provisions of the constitution, taking property without fair payment and barring excessive fines. 

—A case reviving lawsuits filed by whistleblowers that claimed that pharmacy and supermarket chains Safeway and Supervalu Inc. overcharged government healthcare programs for prescription drugs by hundreds of millions of dollars

Justices also agreed to hear whistleblowers’ appeals. They alleged companies defrauded Medicaid and Medicare when retail prices for generic prescription drugs were reported, even though they had primarily been sold to customers at steeply discounted prices.

The lawsuits stem from the effort from the companies to match a 2006 decision made by Walmart to offer 30-day supplies of several generic drugs for $4.

Safeway and Supervalu matched the discounted price at their pharmacies but reported a much higher “usual and customary” price to several states and the federal governments when asking for reimbursement.

According to court filings, a whistleblower expert in the Safeway lawsuit testified that the business received $127 million more than it would have received if it had disclosed the discounted price.

In the Supervalu case, the whistleblower said the company had also matched Walmart’s discounted price for 11 years, amounting to 6.3 million times, according to court papers. The 7th United States Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed both cases, maintaining that the companies’ decisions to report the higher prices were “not objectively unreasonable.”

When asking the high court to reject the appeals, Supervalu’s lawyers wrote that the appropriate price to report “may seem easy enough to determine in the abstract, but it is far from simple.”

The Biden administration is standing behind the whistleblowers. 

—The case of Billy Raymond Counterman, a man who was charged with stalking a musician in Colorado on Facebook, sending her repeated messages over two years. Although Counterman argued the messages were protected free speech, a court determined them unprotected “true threats.” Counterman was ultimately sentenced to over four years in prison. A court of appeals also ruled against him. The Supreme Court will also consider what prosecutors must show to determine whether a statement is a “true threat.”