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EEOC religious accommodation claim for hospital employees who refused flu vaccine advances to trial

By Kathleen Kapusta, J.D.

The EEOC can proceed to trial on its Title VII claim asserted on behalf of three hospital employees whom, it alleged, were terminated for their sincerely held religious beliefs when they refused to comply with the hospital’s flu vaccination requirement. Denying the hospital’s motion for summary judgment, a federal district court in North Carolina found genuine issues of material fact that could lead a reasonable jury to find for or against the federal agency (EEOC v. Mission Hospital, Inc., August 7, 2017, Gogburn, M., Jr.).

The employees—an intake specialist, preschool teacher, and technician—all interacted with small children and other patients. The preschool teacher believed that “our bodies are a temple and that God gave us dominion over our bodies” and injecting the flu vaccine into her body was morally wrong, while the psychiatric technician asserted that the followers of her religion are “healed by plants, fruits, and grains.” The third employee, the triage mental health intake specialist, claimed that “injecting chemicals and diseases into her veins” was not something God intended, it was wrong.

Untimely. Each employee made a request for a religious exemption to the hospital’s flu vaccine and each was denied for being untimely filed. The hospital had staggered dates to request exemptions to the flu vaccine requirement: exemption requests were due September 1 and all employees had to be vaccinated by December 1. The hospital distributed notices to its employees informing them of the September 1 deadline and providing instructions for religious exemptions.

Knowledge? While the employees denied receiving actual notice of any information related to the availability of the religious exemption, whether they had constructive knowledge of the exemption procedure was in dispute, observed the court, pointing to the flyers, screensavers, bulletin board postings, and other advertisements about the flu vaccine requirement. Further, the court pointed out, the job offer given to at least one of the employees provided that it was conditioned on the employee’s agreement “to obtain annual mandatory flu vaccine when it becomes available … unless an exemption is granted” and it also provided a reference link for more information about the flu vaccine.

This was not a case of whether the hospital did or did not believe the employees’ religious beliefs, said the court, explaining that instead it purportedly rejected the accommodation requests because the employees did not meet a prescribed deadline. Assuming the EEOC established a prima facie case—that the employees had sincerely held beliefs, they communicated those beliefs to the employer, and an adverse employment action was taken for that reason—the court pointed out that the burden was then on the hospital to prove either that (1) it provided the employee with a reasonable accommodation for his or her religious observances, or (2) that an accommodation was not provided because it would have caused an undue hardship.

Accommodations provided. As to the first prong, the EEOC’s own facts showed that 250 of the hospital’s employees have been granted religious exemptions since 2010 and since 2012, 89 religious exemptions have been filed, with 23 denied. Observing that 74 percent of religious exemption requests have been approved, the court noted that approving “approximately 75% of religious exemption requests does not evince a prejudice against sincerely held religious beliefs. Indeed, a jury could reasonably find that a reasonable accommodation to the religious observances would be to timely file an exemption request.”

Undue hardship. As to the second prong, the court noted that the employer operates a large hospital and that the employees were interacting with vulnerable populations. Thus, a jury could reasonably find that strictly-enforced exemption procedures to vaccination requirements protected the hospital’s patients. Moreover, if the hospital’s other health care staff or patients suffered hospital-borne infectious disease, such an infection would increase costs to the hospital.

But the facts here were not one-sided, the court explained, observing that just as a reasonable jury could find for the hospital, it could also find the hospital was treating individuals differently if they did not request the exemption. Observing the EEOC’s contention that there was a “grace period” for those employees who did not meet the December 1 deadline, but no “grace period” for those that failed to meet the exemption’s September 1 deadline, the court pointed out that the jury could determine the staggered dates themselves were unfairly targeting those with religious beliefs. Thus, the claim would proceed to trial.