Marie Jean Pierre worked as a dishwasher at Conrad Miami Hotel. She requested Sundays off and from 2009 to 2015, the company had no problem accommodating her request, which was for religious reasons. However, sometime in 2015 her manager began demanding that she work on Sundays. 

Pierre sued and won, to the tune of $21 million. Now, she won't see very much of that due to caps on punitive damages and lawyers fees. Most likely she'll walk away with $500,000, which is still not small change.

What went wrong here? How did Conrad Miami (owned by Virginia-based Park Hotels & Resorts, formerly known as Hilton Worldwide) screw up so much that the jury not only found them guilty of violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but threw in millions in punitive damages? Well, I don't know for sure what went down, but I can tell you some of their mistakes and what you can do to avoid this problem.

Reasonable accommodations are required

You're probably more familiar with reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but accommodations are also required for religious exemptions. They aren't as strict, though. In Pierre's case, because they had accommodated her for so long, it would be very difficult for the business to argue that it created even a tiny hardship for them.

Your business needs can be different and it can be unreasonable to allow someone to have every Sunday (or Saturday or another day) off work. If, for instance, you run an events business and 90 percent of your events are over the weekends, it would be unreasonable. But, if someone is getting Sundays off, and the person requesting religious accommodation is willing to swap shifts, you need to step back.

Likewise for things like headscarves, prayer time, or not handling certain products. A grocery store with 35 aisles of non-alcoholic items and one beer aisle would have a very hard time not accommodating an employee who will happily stock cereal but not beer. But, a convenience store with only one employee working at a time would suffer hardship if the cashier wouldn't sell alcohol.

Common niceness goes a long way towards lawsuit protection

The hotel allowed her to swap shifts for a short period of time and then stopped. Now, if she couldn't find anyone to swap with her, that would be a different story, but it sounds as if they prevented her from doing so. Goodness gracious, you need a strong reason to say no to shift swapping. It makes you look petty an vindictive.

Check your personnel files

Pierre was a long term employee, so it's doubtful that the kitchen manager who fired her hired her. Did this person know that there was documentation in her file about why she wanted Sundays off and it was for religious reasons? If you have an employee making a religious accommodation request, double check with HR. Look in the file. What promises were made when she was hired?

There are two sides to every story

The hotel claims Pierre was fired for misconduct, negligence, and unexcused absences. Is it possible that this is absolutely the truth? Of course it is. The jury didn't buy it though. Your documentation needs to be thorough and unrelated to the religious accommodation requests. Juries and judges are suspicious when this happens and you better be prepared.

It's not over quite yet.

According to NBC, Hilton will appeal. "During Ms. Pierre's ten years with the hotel, multiple concessions were made to accommodate her personal and religious commitments," a spokeswoman said. "We intend to appeal, and demonstrate that the Conrad Miami was and remains a welcoming place for all guests and employees."

But, even if they win on appeal, I can guarantee they've spent more money fighting this lawsuit than it would have cost to simply let Pierre have Sundays off or to settle out of court. This is a general problem with employment lawsuits and a reason businesses often settle even when they reasonably could have won.

Published on: Jan 17, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.