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Termination for Failure to Receive a Flu Shot – Is this Religious Discrimination?

By on November 28, 2016 in Discrimination with 0 Comments

Now that Thanksgiving is over, flu season is in full swing.  Although it would not occur to most employers that requiring employees to receive a flu shot would cause legal problems, recent cases from Pennsylvania show that such a requirement may be problematic.

In September 2016, the U.S. Equal Employment opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) filed suit on behalf of a group of nurses and medical workers who allege that they were terminated by their employer, a hospital, because they refused to receive the flu vaccine for religious reasons. See U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Saint Vincent Health Center, No. 16-224 (W.D. Pa. September 22, 2016).  In that case, the Defendant employer had maintained a mandatory vaccination policy since 2013, which required all employees to receive a flu vaccine annually as a term and condition of employment.  Under this policy, an employee may request an exemption to the flu vaccine requirement for either medical or religious reasons. In order for an employee to qualify for a religious exemption, the employee must submit a form request.  The form requires the employee to obtain a certification by a clergy member or other third party that states that the employee requesting the exemption “practices a religion where influenza vaccination is contraindicated according to doctrine or accepted religious practices.” The policy also provides that any employee who has not been vaccinated for the flu and has not received an employer-approved exemption will be terminated.  The EEOC alleges that the employer failed to accommodate the religious beliefs of six employees, who are all participants of different religious sects.  Each of the employees requested a religious exemption and allegedly provided the employer with passages from religious texts to support their positions.  The hospital denied each of the requests for exemptions because the employees did not provide “proof of a religious doctrine.” This case is currently pending in the District Court of the Western District of Pennsylvania.

A similar case was heard in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in August 2016 called Fallon v. Mercy Catholic Med. Ctr., No. 16-00834, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 105364 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 9, 2016). In that Case, Paul Fallon was employed by a medical center, which required that its employees receive the flu shot or request an exemption.  Fallon refused and submitted a letter and twenty-two page essay explaining why he should be exempt from the requirement.  Fallon is not a member of an organized religion, but he explained to his employer that he opposes vaccines and believes that their benefits are exaggerated and risks minimized.  Mr. Fallon’s request for an exemption was denied and he was terminated.  Fallon brought suit alleging religious discrimination under Title VII and wrongful termination in violation of Pennsylvania public policy.  The employer filed a motion to dismiss the Complaint, which was granted.  The Court held that Fallon failed to state a claim for religious discrimination under Title VII because Fallon’s opposition to vaccinations was entirely personal, political, sociological and economic, as opposed to being based upon religious orientation.  The Court also held that Fallon failed to establish that his termination threatened a clear mandate of public policy.

Although it is not clear what the outcome will be in the pending EEOC case, it is clear that there are stark differences in the facts between the EEOC case and Fallon’s case.  Employers, especially those in the medical field which require employees to receive flu vaccinations, should keep these cases in mind.  When faced with an employee who refuses to abide by an employer policy for “religious reasons,” whether it be related to vaccines or any other issue, it is best to speak with legal counsel about the specific facts at hand before denying or approving an exemption from the policy.

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