Labor & Employment Law Daily Hospital prevails in EEOC suit over Christian employee who refused flu vaccine—or mask
Friday, June 19, 2020

Hospital prevails in EEOC suit over Christian employee who refused flu vaccine—or mask

By Lisa Milam, J.D.

The HR employee refused a flu shot for religious reasons, but she then failed to consistently wear a face mask, which was the other option provided in the hospital’s influenza policy.

This seemingly minor pre-COVID-19 scuffle over a Christian employee’s refusal to wear a face mask (in lieu of a flu vaccine) could prove to be significant as employers, cautiously reopening their worksites following pandemic-induced shutdowns, adopt mandatory mask policies as a safety measure—and face employee opposition. Entering judgment against the EEOC in a religious discrimination suit alleging that a hospital failed to accommodate a devout Christian who refused, for religious reasons, to obtain a flu vaccine, a federal judge in Massachusetts noted that the employee had the option of wearing a mask in lieu of vaccination but failed to do so consistently—and this was why the hospital placed her on unpaid leave, resulting in her constructive termination. The gist of the court’s reasoning, in granting the hospital’s motion for summary judgment, appeared in the form of a docket entry (EEOC v. Baystate Medical Center, Inc., June 15, 2020, Mastroianni, M.).

Hospital influenza policy. The hospital’s influenza policy offered employees two options: get a flu vaccine, or wear a hospital-provided mask at all times for the duration of the flu season. The employee, a talent acquisition consultant for the hospital, asserted that her religious belief against defiling her body meant she could not get a flu shot, as the consequences for doing so would be that “God will destroy [her]” and that she will “go to hell.” Therefore, she affirmatively declined to be vaccinated.

No religious objection to mask. She professed no religious objections to the mask option. However, she claimed that she tried wearing one, but she could not communicate effectively with the mask over her mouth, as her job required. The employer placed her on unpaid, unprotected leave for failing to wear the mask, resulting in her eventual discharge. The EEOC filed suit on her behalf, alleging that the hospital failed to accommodate her sincerely held religious beliefs.

Mask not an individual accommodation. The EEOC argued that the hospital’s policy in fact required vaccinations, and that the mask alternative was merely provided as an accommodation. (In its motion for summary judgment, the hospital in fact had argued “masking was a built-in accommodation to the policy that was reasonable,” and requiring the hospital to provide an additional accommodation would have imposed more than a de minimis burden on the employer.).

But the court did not agree, noting in its electronic order: “An ‘accommodation,’ as used by the law in this and related contexts, is a flexible, individualized exception which ‘allow[s] the plaintiff to engage in her religious practice despite the employer’s normal rules to the contrary,’ not a rigid policy, or in this case one of two mandatory alternatives.” (The district court was citing a footnote in the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc.) And while the hospital did have a stated goal of maximizing its vaccination rate in order to reduce the spread of flu at the facility, there was no evidence from which a jury could find that the mask alternative was merely a pretext for forcing employees to get immunized (and thus violating the employee’s Title VII rights).

No religious conflict. “Given that the mask, in this case, was itself the employment requirement, rather than merely an accommodation, it is clear that Plaintiff’s claims fail as a matter of law,” the court said. “That is, Plaintiff cannot succeed on the religious discrimination claim because there was no conflict between this employment requirement and her religion, nor was her religion the basis for the adverse employment action.”

“While Plaintiff may dispute the effectiveness of wearing a mask while performing her job (and in preventing the spread of the flu), she had no religious objection to that requirement and, as a result, the court must defer to Defendant’s business and health-policy judgment,” the court added.

Not retaliatory. The EEOC also brought a retaliation claim on the employee’s behalf. Even assuming that she had engaged in Title VII-protected conduct, though, the hospital presented legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for its actions: her refusal to comply with the mask requirement. As noted, there was no evidence presented that this proffered reason was merely a pretext.

No inquiry into bona fide religious belief. The court did not address the hospital’s challenge to the notion that the employee’s objection to the flu vaccine was not based on a sincerely held religious belief; nor did it rule on the EEOC’s motion for partial summary judgment on this issue. The court assumed her objection was based on a bona fide religious belief, but found the point moot and that the hospital was entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law regardless.

In this case, the employee offered no genuine religious objection to wearing a mask, making resolution of the claim a simpler matter. The legal dispute over mandatory mask policies will no doubt offer more complexity when an employee’s objections arise in the context of a request for disability accommodation.

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