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Pennsylvania Federal Judge Tosses Challenge To Employer Jab Or Swab Mandate – Health & Safety



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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.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.

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