Religious Bias Suit Over Vaccination Policy Set to Go to Trial

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By Madison Alder

A North Carolina hospital is set to face trial after allegedly terminating several employees who cited religious reasons for not complying with a vaccination policy ( EEOC v. Mission Hosp., Inc. , W.D.N.C., No. 1:16-cv-00118, 8/7/17 ).

Health care employers can adopt seasonal flu vaccination requirements for their employees without violating Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But employers must “reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs or practices, unless doing so would cause more than a minimal burden on the operations of the employer’s business” the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says in guidance on its website.

Mission Hospital Inc. set staggered deadlines for employees to request a flu vaccine exemption. The court indicated the question to be answered at trial was if the deadlines themselves were an unreasonable accommodation.

Mission Hospital’s request for summary judgment was denied Aug. 7 and the lawsuit will proceed to trial, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina ruled. The facts of the case are not “one sided,” Judge Max O. Cogburn said, recommending that a jury is the best way to determine which party was at fault. Trial has been set for October.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Mission Hospital after it fired at least three employees for noncompliance with its flu vaccination policy after they asked to be exempted for religious reasons, according to the district court. The hospital claimed the employees were terminated for “failing to follow its accommodation procedure for religious exemptions for the flu shot vaccine,” court documents said.

Mission Hospital declined to comment. An attorney representing the EEOC didn’t immediately return Bloomberg BNA’s requests for comment Aug. 8.

Individuals Treated Differently?

“Just as a reasonable jury could find for the hospital defendant, a reasonable jury could find that the defendant was treating individuals differently if they did not request the exemption,” Cogburn wrote.

Employees were notified that requests for exemption were due Sept. 1 and that they must be vaccinated by Dec. 1 if no exemption was requested or granted.

“This is not a case of whether the defendant hospital did or did not believe the claimant’s religious beliefs,” Cogburn said.

Trial Recommended

Mission Hospital said it rejected the requests because they were filed past the Sept. 1 deadline, the court said. The EEOC argued in hearing, however, that there was a “grace period” for the vaccination deadline, Dec. 1, and not for the exemption deadline, Sept. 1.

But a jury could find either “that strictly-enforced exemption procedures to vaccination requirements protected the hospital patients,” or “that the staggered dates themselves were unfairly targeting those with religious beliefs,” the court said in recommending a trial.

The court also denied the EEOC’s request to strike information from the hospital’s summary judgment request, saying these challenges could be renewed at trial.

To contact the reporter on this story: Madison Alder in Washington at malder@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Chris Opfer at copfer@bna.com

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