Photo of Alyssa M. Smilowitz

While most of us rarely think about rubella – a largely forgotten disease that should have disappeared with the “MMR” vaccine¹ – it was the focus of a recent Eighth Circuit decision this month. If you are asking yourself how this largely forgotten illness has anything to do with employment, we will tell you: because for Janice Hustvet, it resulted in the termination of her 15-year position with a healthcare employer.

In Janice Hustvet v. Allina Health System, Case No. 17-2963, decided on December 7, 2018, the Eighth Circuit held that the employer had legitimately terminated Ms. Hustvet when she refused the MMR vaccine and failed to complete a respirator evaluation.

Ms. Hustvet was an “Independent Living Skills Specialist” at the Courage Center. In that role, she worked with individual clients, all of whom were treated as having “compromised” or “fragile” immune systems. In 2013, the Courage Center merged with the Allina Health System, a large healthcare system.

Following the merger, in March of 2013, the Courage Center announced to its employees that they would become employees of Allina and would have to undergo pre-employment screening, including a “pre-placement health assessment screen.” That health assessment screen included “tracking for immunity to certain communicable diseases” and a Respirator Medical Evaluation (“RME”).
Continue Reading

Recent filings show healthcare employers remain susceptible to religious discrimination claims.

In August, the EEOC filed suit against Hackensack Meridian Health (“Hackensack”), a New Jersey healthcare network, alleging an employee was harassed due to religion. According to the complaint, Hackensack hired Jojy Cheriyan in August 2015 to perform clinical informatics work. The EEOC alleges that his supervisor discovered that Mr. Cheriyan was Catholic, which sparked a strong negative reaction. According to the complaint, the supervisor “exhibited disapproval” when he observed a crucifix in Mr. Cheriyan’s office, and began treating Mr. Cheriyan in a hostile and verbally abusive manner, which included screaming at Mr. Cheriyan during meetings, belittling him and his work, tearing his work up and throwing objects at him.

The EEOC claims that Hackensack was aware of the harassment – due to Mr. Cheriyan’s complaints to management – yet failed to take reasonable corrective actions to put an end to the treatment.

At this time, the litigation is in its infancy with only the August complaint on the docket and an answer due in a few weeks. In its press release about the case, the EEOC’s New York District Director stated, “[p]eople of all religions are entitled to go to work and do their jobs without fear of harassment.”
Continue Reading

Last week the EEOC released its annual report breaking down charges received during the fiscal year. In fiscal year 2017, the agency received 84,254 charges and took in $398 million between voluntary resolutions and litigation.

What’s striking is the number of retaliation charges – with 41,097 charges it is an overwhelming 48.8% of total charges

This year flu season came early and with a vengeance. As we mentioned in our October post, The Rise of Employee Religious Discrimination Claims, mandatory flu vaccines present a common pitfall for employers. As employers seek to avoid flu outbreaks in the workplace, they may unknowingly head toward a flu case in the courtroom. Issues arise when employees present sincerely held religious beliefs, or medical issues, that may preclude their flu vaccine. This is a particular challenge in hospitals.

A recent Third Circuit decision should be heartening to employers who are trying to manage vaccination programs. In Fallon v. Mercy Catholic Medical Center of Southeastern Pennsylvania, No. 16-3573, LINK the Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a complaint by an employee who was fired for refusing a vaccine, concluding that an employee did not have a valid religious objection and could be lawfully fired.

The plaintiff, Paul Fallon, had worked at Mercy Catholic since 1994. It was only in 2012 that Mercy Catholic began requiring employee vaccinations. In both 2012 and 2013, Fallon submitted requests for exemption that were approved. Each time Fallon submitted his exemption request, attaching a twenty-two page essay outlining his “sincerely held beliefs” that the vaccine was harmful. However, in 2014, Fallon submitted his same request and received a denial in response, along with an explanation that Mercy Catholic had changed its standards for the exemption. Mercy Catholic requested a letter from a clergyperson supporting his exemption request. Fallon was unable to provide a letter and was ultimately terminated.

Following termination, Fallon filed suit in federal court alleging disparate treatment, religious discrimination and failure to accommodate his religion. After the District Court granted Mercy Catholic’s motion to dismiss, Fallon appealed the decision to the Third Circuit which affirmed the dismissal. In doing so, the Third Circuit undertook an examination of whether Fallon’s beliefs were “religious,” ultimately concluding they were not.
Continue Reading

Marijuana remains illegal under federal law. However, there are many states, and a few cities, which have legalized medical and recreational marijuana – creating challenges for employers, as these laws “sprout up” (pun intended) across the country.

Also, prior to now, the caselaw was quite clear – an employer could discipline an employee for lawful use of marijuana. See Coats v. Dish Network, LLC, 350 P.3d 849 (Colo. 2015). But the law appears to be changing, as recent cases indicate that courts are beginning to recognize that employees who are lawful users of marijuana are entitled to some protection.

It is a trend that employers need to watch.
Continue Reading

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on race, color, sex, national origin and religion. While the first four categories often dominate the news headlines and court dockets, the fifth category — religion — should not be underestimated.

Possibly due to the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2015 Abercrombie decision — a religious

On Saturday, August 12, as the nation watched, protests in Charlottesville, Virginia regarding the anticipated removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee turned deadly. In the days and weeks after, both the small city and the country wrestled to make sense of the events. In the aftermath, employers too were forced to make decisions and judgment calls as the online community identified specific individuals as white supremacists.

We suspect that most of our readers, like us, don’t like white supremacists. But even apart from the moral implications of Charlottesville, the public acts of employees can impact the public goodwill, brand and reputation of an employer—that is, the most valuable things a company has. So when an employee associated with a particular employer engages in distasteful, or hateful, or outrageous public conduct, what can an employer do? Should the employees be terminated? Disciplined? Allowed to do and say whatever they want while not at work?

Background

Soon after August 12, Twitter accounts, including one called @YesYoureRacist, began attempts to identify rally participants, requesting the following of Twitter users: “If you recognize any of the Nazis marching in #Charlottesville, send me their names/profiles and I’ll make them famous.” The viral and fast-moving world of social media helped the YesYoureRacist Twitter account and similar accounts identify rally participants, both with names and pictures.

The identifications resulted in one father’s public open letter response to his son’s participation, informing the public that the family “loudly repudiate[d] my son’s vile, hateful and racist rhetoric and actions” via a North Dakota newspaper. But the disclosures had workplace ramifications as well.

Following the identification of Cole White as a protester involved in the torch-lit march on Friday, August 11, the hot-dog restaurant in Berkley, California where White worked, Top Dog, reportedly displayed a sign on the restaurant’s exterior stating “Effective Saturday 12th August, Cole White no longer works at Top Dog. The actions of those in Charlottesville are not supported by Top Dog. We believe in individual freedom and voluntary association for everyone.” According to a statement issued by Top Dog to the Washington Post, White “voluntarily resigned” from his employment. The statement went on to note, “We do respect our employees’ right to their opinions. They are free to make their own choices but must accept the responsibilities of those choices.”

On the opposite coast, a cook at Uno Pizzeria and Grill in Vermont was reportedly terminated after his participation in the protests. Unlike Top Dog, the pizza chain’s Chief Marketing Office, Skip Weldon, issued a statement to the Burlington Free Press that “Ryan Roy has been terminated…We are committed to the fair treatment of all people and the safety of our guests and employees at our restaurants.”

News outlets similarly reported the termination of a welder and mechanic based in Charleston, South Carolina after he was photographed in Charlottesville beside the individual accused of killing one person and injuring others with his vehicle. Other rally-related terminations were reported.
Continue Reading

When Trump was a brand-new President (or force of nature, depending on how you look at it), we observed that the dawn of his administration would not necessarily augur wholesale changes to the overall landscape of legal concerns for employers.  Why?  Because, as with so many things in Trumpworld, there didn’t appear to be a coherent labor policy, or (given the inexperience of some of his closest team members) even policy competence.

In fairness, however, marauding Huns didn’t have to be particularly artful or finessed about the way they sacked whole cities, right?  In a transformative conquest, a blunt hammer probably works as well as a rapier with pinpoint accuracy.

And so it is with Trump.  With just about eight months of activity, we have seen the Presidential administration do what Trump is best at:  take direct aim at what Obama did and do the opposite.  Incremental changes to labor and employment law and regulation under Trump (and some related developments in the courts) have, one by one, almost entirely reversed course on many of the pet labor and employment initiatives the Obama administration championed, among them:

    • Limitations on class action waivers, which made it more difficult for large groups of plaintiffs to sue companies.
    • “Joint employer” standards that gave labor unions ammunition to argue that multiple franchisees (think McDonald’s), which in the past were treated as separate employers, are in fact joint employers.  Those standards, now reversed, gave unions one big fish for organizing instead of many little ones.
    • A DOL focus on policing the misclassification of employees as independent contractors by employers—a move sometimes made by employers to reduce tax and employee benefits liabilities.
    • Limitations on OSHA drug testing rules covering employees.
    • “Blacklisting” regulations that would require federal contractors to publish claims brought against them alleging labor and employment law violations.
    • Providing additional fiscal resources to the EEOC and OFCCP, instead merging these employment-related agencies into a single entity.
    • Expansions of the so-called “persuader rule,” which required employers to disclose paid relationships with individuals or firms helping employers fight union organizing campaigns.
    • New FLSA overtime regulations, which would have raised the “salary threshold” under which overtime must always be paid and expanded overtime pay entitlement to as many as four million American workers.
    • A National Labor Relations Board stocked with progressives who increased burdens on employers and decreased burdens on unions, in favor of an NLRB much more likely to roll back Obama-era changes.


Continue Reading