Judge limits JBS USA's defense over firing of Muslim workers

by Erica Shaffer
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US District Court trial to last 16 days.
 
DENVER – A federal judge blocked JBS USA LLC from arguing that accommodating Muslim workers’ requests for prayer breaks would have caused an undue burden and therefore was justified in firing workers that walked off the job in protest.

On Aug. 4, US District Court Judge Philip Brimmer granted a request by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to impose the sanction against JBS USA, a unit of São Paulo, Brazil-based JBS SA, for losing or destroying documents related to the case.

The EEOC argued that JBS USA had a duty to preserve and produce two types of records tracking delays on meat packer’s production lines. Court documents show that JBS argued the company did not have a duty to preserve the documents because JBS “had no way of knowing or anticipating that the EEOC would be interested in knowing the specific time of every instance of every day that the production line stopped for an unplanned or unexpected reason.”

Brimmer sided with the EEOC, calling JBS USA’s argument unconvincing.

“In terms of preserving the documents, instead of allowing them to be warehoused, the argument ignores the fact that JBS asserted an undue burden defense within a year of the September 2008 incident and after charges of discrimination had been filed against it,” Brimmer said in his ruling.

“JBS should have known that these records were relevant to its affirmative defense and therefore preserved them in a manner such that they could be reasonably retrieved if required,” Brimmer continued. “Moreover, regardless of whether there was a duty to preserve the records before the EEOC asked for them, once the EEOC asked for them, they should have been preserved.”

Brimmer added that the EEOC did not show that JBS USA acted in bad faith, but the company should be blocked from “arguing at trial or presenting any evidence that allowing prayer breaks causes downtime or slowdowns in production.”

“At the same time,” Brimmer concluded, “JBS’s other undue hardship arguments, which are not implicated in the loss or destruction of the records, such as that the proposed accommodations would increase costs, create food safety issues, create personal safety issues, impose burdens on co-workers, or lower employee morale, will not be substantially hampered by this sanction.”

The EEOC accused JBS USA of refusing to allow Somali Muslim employees to pray according to their religious beliefs, and then retaliated against them by disciplining them or firing them when they requested their evening break be moved so that they could break their fast and pray closer to sundown during Ramadan in 2008. Ramadan is a holy month in the Islamic faith which requires daytime fasting.

A bench trial was scheduled to begin Aug. 7.

The case is Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. JBS USA, LLC, 1:10-cv-02103.

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