On August 26, 2022, Chief U.S. District Judge Matthew Brann of the United States District Court for the Intermediate District of Pennsylvania dismissed a putative class action lawsuit representing approximately 100 healthcare company employees brought against their employer , Geisinger Clinic. In the lawsuit, the employees challenged their employer’s policy requiring employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or agree to regular testing and quarantine. In dismissing the complaint, the court dismissed the employees’ allegations of religious, constitutional and state law discrimination, calling the employees’ evidence a “collection of distorted statements and anti-vaccine sleight of hand.”
In August 2021, Geisinger required all employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 unless they had a religious or medical exemption. Christine Lynn Finkbeiner (and other employees and former employees) requested a religious exemption, which Geisinger conditionally approved. Later, Geisinger informed Finkbeiner and others that the religious exemption did not exempt them from the testing requirement and, as a condition of employment, they had to pass a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) or DNA test. COVID-19 antigen twice a week and quarantine for at least 14 days after exposure to someone who tests positive.
Finkbeiner applied for a religious exemption to be exempt from testing and quarantine requirements. Finkbeiner filed an affidavit claiming the tests were unnecessary because she was working from home, and the tests were “a bad choice for my health and my body.” Geisinger rejected Finkbeiner’s request to be excused from the testing requirement and decided to interpret his refusal as a voluntary resignation. Finkbeiner filed a putative class action lawsuit, alleging religious discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and state law, constitutional violations, and tortious assaults on emotional distress.
In support of his claims of religious discrimination, Finkbeiner alleged that Geisinger failed to offer him a reasonable accommodation for testing and quarantine because the tests were “ineffective, carcinogenic and only approved for emergency use. in the United States, and therefore only served to punish her. for his religious beliefs. Finkbeiner’s affidavit stated that as a Christian, she believes she has a “God-given right” or “free will, granted to [her] by God” to make choices about his health and his body.
The district judge’s decision
Geisinger argued that Finkbeiner’s arguments were more medical than religious in nature. The court accepted. The judge found that Finkbeiner’s argument that she has a “God-given right to do [her] own choices” would amount to a “general privilege” and an “unlimited excuse to avoid all unwanted obligations”. The court found that his genuine opposition to the vaccination and testing policy was based on medical beliefs, as opposed to religious beliefs that would support a claim of religious discrimination.
Finkbeiner also alleged violations of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments and sought relief under Section 1983. The court rejected Finkbeiner’s claim that only the Pennsylvania Department of Health has the authority to issue a warrant state vaccine and that Geisinger has assumed the role of the state in issuing its vaccine or testing policy. According to the court, the “duty to protect the health of the population and to employ the most effective methods of suppressing disease” is not exclusive to the state.
Finkbeiner further alleged that Geisinger “acted in concert with federal officials in implementing the vaccine mandate following CDC recommendations and recommendations from other federal officials such as Dr. Anthony Fauci.”
The court found that Geisinger was not acting in concert with federal authorities simply because he may have adopted his policy based on recommendations from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Instead, the court ruled that the employees had to “show that the government was indeed responsible for the conduct,” evidence that the employees failed to show. The court dismissed all claims with prejudice, criticizing the lawsuit as simply seeking validation that COVID-19 vaccines and testing are a “hoax,” with no “legal hook” to do so.
Finally, the court dismissed claims that Geisinger intentionally inflicted emotional distress on the plaintiffs by enforcing his vaccination policy, noting that Finkbeiner had not presented medical evidence of physical harm. The court further ruled “that it is neither extreme nor outrageous for a healthcare system to present employees with the choice of a shot, a swab, or their job.” Additionally, the court ruled that the employees could not file a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress because they are not alleging that Geisinger breached a specific duty or that the policy was the type of conduct that would cause emotional distress. “There was no gunshot to the head, needle in the shoulder or nostril swab,” the judge said.
Key points to remember
The ruling is the latest example of a court backing employers who choose to implement workplace safety policies requiring COVID-19 vaccines or testing, which may be increasingly important as some states limit capacity. employers to require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The decision is notable because the court found that the employee’s arguments on autonomy and agency were insufficient before the Third Circuit Court of Appeals to demonstrate an honest religious belief for the purposes of the employee’s religious discrimination claims. title VII. Specifically, the court held that while such a claim is “fungible enough to cover anything,” it is more of an “isolated moral teaching” rather than a “complete system of beliefs.” which is required for a legal claim of religious discrimination.
The case thus reminds employers of the importance of following the accommodation process for vaccination mandates and offering objectively reasonable accommodations, as employers may face similar questions regarding COVID-19 recalls or vaccination. for monkey pox.
© 2022, Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, PC, All rights reserved.National Law Review, Volume XII, Number 245