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On August 26, 2022, Chief U.S. District Judge Matthew Brann for the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania dismissed a putative class action representing approximately 100 healthcare company employees brought against their employer, Geisinger Clinic. In the suit, the employees challenged their employer’s policy requiring employees to either be vaccinated for COVID-19 or agree to regular testing and quarantining. In dismissing the complaint, the court rejected the employees’ religious discrimination, constitutional, and state law claims, calling the employees’ evidence “a collection of distorted statements and anti-vaccine hocus-pocus.”

Background

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 excuse them from the testing requirement and, as a condition of employment, they needed to take a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) or antigen COVID-19 test twice per week and quarantine for at least 14 days following exposure to someone who tests positive.

Finkbeiner requested a religious exemption to be excused from the testing and quarantine requirements. Finkbeiner filed an affidavit that claimed testing was unnecessary because she worked from home, and such testing was “a bad choice for my health and body.” Geisinger denied Finkbeiner’s request to be excused from the testing requirement and decided to interpret her refusal as a voluntary resignation. Finkbeiner filed a putative class action, alleging religious discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and state law, constitutional violations, and tortious infliction of emotional distress.

In support of her religious discrimination claims, Finkbeiner alleged that Geisinger failed to offer her a reasonable accommodation to testing and quarantining because the tests were “ineffective, carcinogenic, and only approved for emergency use in the United States, and thus solely serve to punish her for her religious beliefs.” Finkbeiner’s affidavit stated that, as a Christian, she believes that she has a “God given right” or the “free will, granted to [her] by God” to make choices with regard to her health and body.

The District Judge’s Decision

Geisinger argued that Finkbeiner’s arguments were more medical in nature, not religious. The court agreed. The judge reasoned that Finkbeiner’s argument that she has a “God given right to make [her] own choices” would amount to a “blanket privilege” and a “limitless excuse for avoiding all unwanted … obligations.” The court concluded that her real opposition to the vaccine and testing policy was based on medical beliefs, as opposed to religious beliefs that would support a religious discrimination claim.

Finkbeiner also alleged violations of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, and sought recovery under Section 1983. The court rejected Finkbeiner’s allegation that only the Pennsylvania Department of Health has the power to issue a state vaccine mandate and that Geisinger 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 people and employ the most effective methods of disease suppression” is not exclusive to the state.

Finkbeiner further alleged that Geisinger “acted in concert with federal officials by implementing the vaccine mandate as a result of the CDC’s recommendations and the recommendations of other federal officials such as Dr. Anthony Fauci.”

The court reasoned that Geisinger was not acting in concert with federal officials simply because it may have enacted its policy based on recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Rather, the court held the employees must “show that the government is indeed responsible for the conduct,” a showing the employees failed to make. The court dismissed all the claims with prejudice, criticizing the lawsuit as merely seeking validation that COVID-19 vaccines and tests are a “hoax,” without a “legal hook” to do so.

Finally, the court rejected the claims that Geisinger intentionally inflicted emotional distress on plaintiffs by enforcing its vaccine policy, noting that Finkbeiner failed to submit medical evidence of physical harm. The court further held “it is not extreme and outrageous for a health system to present employees with the choice of a jab, a swab, or their job.” Moreover, the court held the employees could not state a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress because they did not allege Geisinger breached any specific duty or that the policy was the type of conduct that would cause emotional distress. “There was no gun-to-the-head, needle-to-the-shoulder, or swab-to-the–nostril moment,” the judge said.

Key Takeaways

This 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 curtail employers’ ability to require employees to get COVID-19 vaccines. The decision is notable because the court found that the employee’s arguments about autonomy and free will were insufficient in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals to show a sincerely held religious belief for purposes of Title VII religious discrimination claims. 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 comprehensive system of beliefs” that is necessary for a legal claim for religious discrimination.

The case, thus, serves as a reminder to employers of the importance of following the accommodation process for vaccination mandates and offering accommodations that are objectively reasonable as employers may be faced with similar questions regarding COVID-19 booster shots or vaccination for monkeypox.

Ogletree Deakins will continue to monitor and report on developments with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic and will post updates in the firm’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Resource Center as additional information becomes available. Important information for employers is also available via the firm’s webinar and podcast programs.

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