As the next round of COVID-19 booster vaccinations flood the market, so too do employment discrimination suits involving employees seeking exemptions to their employer’s vaccine mandates. Several federal statutes broadly protect employees from discrimination, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act which protects employees based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; and the Americans with Disabilities Act, which protects employees with disabilities.
Over the last three years, these statutes have become popular subjects of employment discrimination lawsuits after employers have terminated employees for refusing to abide by vaccine mandates.
Recently, the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts provided guidance on this issue in the case, Griffin v. Mass. Department of Revenue. Griffin was a former state employee who was terminated after refusing to abide by the Department of Revenue’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Griffin based her refusal on her religious beliefs, alleging the Department of Revenue discriminated against her on the basis of her religion by terminating her employment. However, at the time of her termination, Griffin’s only explanation of her vaccination-refusal was “I have a sincerely held religious belief that I should not receive the COVID-19 vaccine.” The Court ruled that reasoning was insufficient:
“[A] plaintiff who claims exemption from an employment requirement for religious reasons must plead some modicum of plausible facts sufficient to create an inference that the conflict arises from some specific religious tenet or principle . . . [W]hile plaintiff is entitled to practice her own individualized form of faith, she is not entitled to a virtually automatic exception from the vaccination requirement, based solely on her own representation that it violates her religious principles on an ad hoc basis.”
The Court carefully contrasted the instant case from Title VII protections for employees who do adequately explain their religious objections to vaccine mandates. The Court illustrated a helpful hypothetical involving two different employees:
“One is an Orthodox Jew who contends that he cannot work on Saturday without violating the requirements of his faith. The other is an individual who claims that he must work remotely on all days because he believes in God, and God has advised him that he should never commute. Arguably, those two claims should be entitled to equal deference, as both involve a claim of religious conflict with an employment requirement. But that would be entirely unworkable, indeed absurd. Courts (and, for that matter, employers) must have some ability to assess the basis of such idiosyncratic claims …”
The takeaway for both employers and employees is to be careful, both in requesting religious accommodations and in evaluating religious accommodation requests. In Griffin, the Court suggests an intolerance for accommodation requests that are entirely subjective, conclusory, or merely “unadorned declaration[s].” However, employers too should understand the court’s guidance: that pleading “some modicum of plausible facts” supporting the employee’s religious beliefs is not a very high bar. Courts are certain to preside over similar cases in the near future, and regardless of whether you are an employer or an employee, Griffin clearly sets forth a federal standard governing COVID-19 vaccination lawsuits.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently, in Groff v. Dejoy, provided guidance to employers as to the “burden” the employer must consider when evaluating an employee’s religious accommodation. As discussed in this article, Ask General Counsel, Burden Increases on Employers When Considering Religious Accommodation Requests, the U.S. Supreme Court held that an employer is required to show a substantial burden to deny an employee’s religious accommodation request.
If you need more guidance or information, contact the employment law attorneys at General Counsel, P.C. today at 703-556-0411, firstname.lastname@example.org, or use this Contact Us Form. Attorneys at General Counsel, PC are specialized in labor and employment law and have experience working with businesses, non-profits, and individuals throughout the DC Metropolitan area and across Virginia, specifically in Fairfax County, Arlington, and Loudoun County.