A Boston hospital reasonably accommodated an employee’s religious objections to its influenza vaccination program by offering alternatives, but exempting the employee from the vaccination requirement would impose an undue hardship on the hospital because of the risk of infection to patients, a federal court in Massachusetts has concluded, granting the hospital’s motion for summary judgment in an employee’s religious discrimination suit. Leontine K. Robinson v. Children’s Hospital Boston, C.A. No. 14-10263-DJC (D. Mass. Apr. 5, 2016).
In July 2011, Children’s Hospital Boston adopted a policy requiring anyone affiliated with the Hospital who accesses patient-care areas to be vaccinated against the influenza virus by December 1, 2011. The only persons exempt from vaccination were those for whom the vaccine posed a serious health risk. While it did not exempt people who objected to the vaccination on religious grounds, it accommodated them by allowing them to receive a pork-free (gelatin-free) vaccine.
Leontine Robinson, a Muslim, was an administrative associate. In this position, Robinson interacted with patients and their families as they arrived in the emergency department. Robinson objected to the vaccine on religious grounds, because it contained gelatin made from pork, which she said her religion forbade. The Hospital offered Robinson the pork-free vaccine, also telling her that if she found another position where she would not interact with patients, she would not be required to be vaccinated. In November 2011, Robinson also told the Hospital she believed many vaccines were contaminated and she was not comfortable receiving the influenza vaccine. On the December 1 vaccination deadline, Robinson informed the Hospital she had an allergic reaction to the influenza vaccine when she received it in 2007. The Hospital granted Robinson a temporary medical exemption, but ultimately concluded her medical history did not qualify her for a medical exemption.
The Hospital granted Robinson’s request to use earned time off while looking for an alternative position. When Robinson still was unable to find another position after an additional two-week leave, the Hospital terminated her employment, but treated the termination as a voluntary resignation, leaving her eligible to apply for open positions at the Hospital in the future. Robinson filed suit in federal district court alleging that her termination constituted unlawful religious discrimination under federal law (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964) and Massachusetts law. After filing suit, Robinson testified in her deposition that in addition to her concerns about the vaccine containing pork or otherwise being contaminated, she learned in November 2011 that her religion had a moratorium on all vaccinations.
The court granted the Hospital’s motion for summary judgment as to both the federal and state law claims. Assuming for purposes of deciding the motion that Robinson refused to be vaccinated because of her sincerely held religious beliefs, the court found the Hospital met its obligation to reasonably accommodate Robinson’s religious beliefs by allowing her to seek a medical exemption, providing her reemployment resources, granting her time to secure new employment, and preserving her ability to return to the Hospital by classifying her termination as a voluntary resignation. The court also agreed with the Hospital’s alternative argument that it was entitled to summary judgment because granting Robinson’s request would have increased the risk of transmitting influenza to its already vulnerable patient population, creating an undue hardship for the Hospital. Robinson has appealed the decision.
This case highlights the importance of working proactively with employees when implementing an influenza vaccination program. Religious objections to influenza vaccination programs continue to be the subject of legal challenges around the country. In addition, the EEOC has announced that it filed suit against a hospital alleging the hospital violated federal law when it failed to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs when implementing its influenza vaccination program.