Jun 2 2016

Termination for Vaccine Refusal Upheld in Religious Discrimination Suit

Summary Judgment was recently awarded to a hospital in religious discrimination lawsuit brought by an employee in United States District Court, Boston. In Robinson v. Children's Hosp. Boston, the plaintiff, a Muslim, alleged that the defendant hospital violated state and federal law by terminating her after she declined a flu vaccination because of her religious beliefs. The Court dismissed the suit on two grounds: 1) the hospital attempted to reasonably accommodate the plaintiff; and 2) an undue hardship would be imposed by permitting the plaintiff to continue providing clinical care to patients.

Once the plaintiff refused the vaccine, the hospital provided a temporary medical exemption which was ultimately denied. The hospital also encouraged the plaintiff to transfer to another position within the company and offered her assistance toward that effort. The plaintiff interviewed for non-clinical care positions, but was not offered the positions. The Court ruled that both of these steps constituted reasonable accommodations.

In concluding an “undue hardship” existed by keeping the plaintiff in a patient-care environment, the Court relied on an informal discussion letter issued by EEOC which states “[f]acts relevant to undue hardship” for a health care worker's request for an exemption from employer-mandated vaccinations “would presumably include, among other things, the assessment of the public risk posed at a particular time, the availability of effective alternative means of infection control, and potentially the number of employees who actually request accommodation.” The Court noted that an undue hardship can exist if the proposed accommodation would “either cause or increase safety risks or the risk of legal liability for the employer.” Further, “Title VII does not require employers to test their safety policies on employees to determine the minimum level of protection needed to avoid injury.”

The Court’s analysis emphasizes the importance of proactively balancing safety concerns in the workplace with an employee’s religious beliefs. Here, the hospital conscientiously sought to accommodate the employee in multiple ways. The hospital’s approach is an example of how sensibly accommodating an employee’s request can protect an employer from liability under state and federal discrimination laws.

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