July 27, 2023

Plain Meaning or Precedent? Why Not Both?

3 min

Imagine you're crafting an argument in an appellate court. The key statute has language that favors you, but a decades-old Supreme Court case goes the opposite way. Or, from the other side, the case is favorable but the statute isn't. That's the dilemma that the lawyers in Groff v. DeJoy faced. And the unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision that resulted has a lesson for all those who find themselves in a similar spot.

Groff turned on the meaning of the statutory term "undue hardship." Groff, a postal worker who had religious objections to working on Sunday, argued that his employer had to accommodate his religious belief unless it caused an "undue hardship." But the statute didn't define "undue hardship," and the Supreme Court had addressed the term's meaning just once: In 1977, Trans World Airlines v. Hardison interpreted "undue hardship" narrowly to mean that employers need not accommodate an employee's religious belief if doing so would impose "more than a de minimis cost." Since then, however, commentators and lower court judges had criticized Hardison as inconsistent with the statute's plain meaning.

Groff — preferring plain meaning to precedent — urged the Court to overrule Hardison and replace the "de minimis" standard with the "significant difficulty or expense" test already used for another law with similar language. On the other hand, the government's core defense was that the Court should uphold Hardison, which employers, courts, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had relied on for 50 years.

In a unanimous opinion, the Court rejected the parties' either-or approaches, instead striking a balance between plain meaning and precedent. The Court agreed with Groff about the plain meaning of "hardship," explaining that "[i]n common parlance, a 'hardship' is, at a minimum, 'something hard to bear."' It went on to say that an "undue" burden must rise to an "'excessive' or 'unjustifiable level.'" At this point, the Court seemed on its way to adopting Groff's "significant difficulty or expense" test.

But the Court declined to overturn Hardison. Instead, it held that Hardison had actually focused on terms like "substantial burden," not "de minimis cost." Hardison didn't need to be overruled because, rightly read, its reasoning fit the plain meaning of "undue hardship." What's more, the Court noted that "today's clarification may prompt little, if any, change in [agency] guidance." So the Court wasn't just reinterpreting Hardison, it was endorsing a reading that was already in use.

What's the lesson for appellate lawyers? Don't get stuck in an either-or way of thinking. Courts are loath to overrule precedent. Intermediate appellate courts aren't even allowed to do so. And while it may sometimes appear that an older case is misreading a statute, chances are that the judges back then saw the same plain-meaning problems that the judges today will see. If so, reconciling precedent with plain meaning may not be as hard as it seems. The best arguments will help a court see that precedent and plain meaning are on the same side.