Garcia v. Salvation Army, 918 F.3d 997 (9th Cir. 2019)

Ann Garcia worked as social services coordinator for the Salvation Army but “left the Church” and stopped attending religious services there a few years before taking a lengthy medical leave of absence due to fibromyalgia and eventually being fired for failing to report to work despite being cleared by her doctor. Garcia sued for religious discrimination under Title VII and disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the Salvation Army, holding that the religious organization exemption (“ROE”) to Title VII applied even though the Salvation Army had failed to raise the defense in its answer to the complaint. The Ninth Circuit held that although the ROE is not an unwaivable jurisdictional defense, absent prejudice to the plaintiff, it could be first raised at the summary judgment stage (as it was in this case). The Court further held that the ROE bars claims for retaliation and hostile work environment and is not limited to discriminatory hiring and firing claims. Finally, the Court affirmed summary judgment of Garcia’s ADA claims on the grounds that she failed to return to work after her doctor cleared her to return “without restrictions” and that once she was no longer disabled, the employer was no longer required to engage in the interactive process with her. Compare Su v. Stephen S. Wise Temple, 32 Cal. App. 5th 1159 (2019) (preschool teachers who were employed by temple were not “ministers” within the meaning of the ministerial exemption and thus could proceed with wage/hour claims).