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Second Circuit Rejects Religious Discrimination Claim Based on COVID-19 Vaccination Mandate

    Client Alerts
  • December 08, 2023

In last term’s decision in Groff v. DeJoy, the U.S. Supreme Court significantly increased employers’ obligation to consider religious exemption requests under Title VII. Rather than the previous de minimus burden standard, employers cannot deny such requests absent a substantial burden on their business. Among other accommodation requests, healthcare employers wondered whether this decision changed their ability to require mandatory vaccinations of personnel in contact with patients. Last month in an unpublished opinion, the Second Circuit upheld a hospital’s termination of a resident who refused to take the COVID-19 vaccination for religious and health reasons.

In D’Cunha v. Northwell Health Systems, the plaintiff alleged that she was denied the requested exemption based on her religion and pregnancy. The hospital contended that allowing the exemption would create an undue hardship because the plaintiff worked directly with patients, and because a New York state mandate required healthcare workers to be vaccinated.

The Second Circuit agreed, affirming dismissal of the claim. In addition to recognizing the effect of the state mandate, the court noted that the plaintiff requested a blanket exemption with no modifications to her duties or measures to avoid potential exposure to vulnerable persons. The employer, however, was not required to provide the accommodation requested by the employee, only one that would have effectively met her religious beliefs.

While not all states had COVID-19 vaccination mandates in place, this decision supports employers’ arguments that simply exempting workers with religious objections to the vaccine mandate is not a required accommodation, or would present an undue hardship based on the risk presented to patients. While the Groff decision breathed new life into many vaccine mandate lawsuits, healthcare employers still have the ability to make reasoned decisions based on risks presented and potential alternative accommodations.

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