The EEOC Updated Its COVID Vaccination Guidance and Confirmed What We Already Knew About Political Objections to Vaccination

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By Kathleen J. Jennings (kjj@wimlaw.com)

Yesterday, the EEOC updated its Guidance regarding COVID-19, specifically addressing employee religious objections to employer vaccination policies. What we learned is something we pretty much already knew; at least, it is the advice that we have been giving to clients, namely, that a political objection to vaccination is not protected by Title VII.

Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on religion. This includes a right for job applicants and employees to request an exception, called a religious or reasonable accommodation, from an employer requirement that conflicts with their sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances. If an employer shows that it cannot reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs, practices, or observances without undue hardship on its operations, the employer is not required to grant the accommodation.

The EEOC reminds us that definition of “religion” under Title VII protects nontraditional religious beliefs that may be unfamiliar to employers. While the employer should not assume that a request is invalid simply because it is based on unfamiliar religious beliefs, employees may be asked to explain the religious nature of their belief and should not assume that the employer already knows or understands it. By contrast, Title VII does not protect social, political, or economic views, or personal preferences. Thus, objections to COVID-19 vaccination that are based on social, political, or personal preferences, or on nonreligious concerns about the possible effects of the vaccine, do not qualify as “religious beliefs” under Title VII.

That’s right, political objections to vaccines are not protected by Title VII. We already knew that, but it is nice to hear from the EEOC.

The EEOC also tells us that when making a request for a religious accommodation, employees do not need to use any “magic words,” such as “religious accommodation” or “Title VII.” However, they need to notify the employer that there is a conflict between their sincerely held religious beliefs and the employer’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement. Then the employer and employer must engage in the “interactive process” to determine if a reasonable accommodation exists.

It is important for employees to understand that a request for a religious exception from a vaccination requirement does not mean that the employee receives an automatic pass. In some cases, the employer may not be able to accommodate an employee’s refusal to take a vaccination without creating an undue hardship to its business. Courts have found Title VII undue hardship where, for example, the religious accommodation would impair workplace safety, diminish efficiency in other jobs, or cause coworkers to carry the accommodated employee’s share of potentially hazardous or burdensome work.

Pro Tip: Any employer that requires its employees to be vaccinated (either because the law requires it or otherwise) should develop a form that employees and applicants can utilize to request a religious or medical exemption to vaccination.

Kathleen J. Jennings is an attorney licensed to practice law in Georgia and New York. She graduated from Cornell University, College of Arts & Sciences, with distinction and New York University School of Law. She is a principal in the Atlanta office of Wimberly, Lawson, Steckel, Schneider, & Stine, P.C. and defends employers in employment matters, such as sexual harassment, discrimination, Wage and Hour, OSHA, restrictive covenants, and other employment litigation and provides training and counseling to employers in employment matters. She can be contacted at kjj@wimlaw.com.

Copyright 2021 Kathleen Jennings

It’s Not A Good Idea To Admit To Discrimination in a Text Message

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By Kathleen J. Jennings (kjj@wimlaw.com)

Sometimes, I just have to shake my head when I read about an employment decision gone horribly wrong. And this one is really a head shaker: according to a lawsuit just filed by the EEOC, a manager at a Franklinton, Louisiana, restaurant fired a newly-hired worker after sending her a social media message saying, “I’m not gonna be able to hire you. I didn’t realize that you were expecting a baby.” When the worker reapplied for work several months later, the restaurant wrote “pregnant” on her application and did not rehire her.

Now, this is just the EEOC’s side of the story, so the restaurant may have an entirely different version of the facts. But I find it unlikely that the EEOC is going to fabricate the existence of a social media message wherein the manager admits that he is discriminating on the basis of pregnancy, which is a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Here’s the thing: it is unlawful for an employer to fire an employee simply because she is pregnant. Furthermore, an employer cannot make assumptions about what a pregnant worker can or cannot do.

And please–do not fire (or unhire) employees via social media messages or text messages. Just don’t. It is not professional, and the shorthand often utilized in those media can confuse your message. Any time you put something in writing regarding an important employment decision, such as hiring, firing, promotion, or discipline, expect that it will be shown to an attorney, maybe the EEOC, or ultimately, a jury. How will your message look to someone who doesn’t know you or your business?

Having an attorney review these types of communications in advance will save the company money in the long run. Let’s face it: if the restaurant manager above had let the company’s attorney review his social media message to the pregnant worker before he sent it, I like to think that there is a high probability that the message would have said something completely different, and maybe the EEOC wouldn’t be suing the company. So asking an attorney to review these communications in advance can be money well spent.

Kathleen J. Jennings is an attorney licensed to practice law in Georgia and New York. She graduated from Cornell University, College of Arts & Sciences, with distinction and New York University School of Law. She is a principal in the Atlanta office of Wimberly, Lawson, Steckel, Schneider, & Stine, P.C. and defends employers in employment matters, such as sexual harassment, discrimination, Wage and Hour, OSHA, restrictive covenants, and other employment litigation and provides training and counseling to employers in employment matters. She can be contacted at kjj@wimlaw.com.

Copyright 2021 Kathleen Jennings

The materials available at this blog site are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem. Use of and access to this Web site or any of the e-mail links contained within the site do not create an attorney-client relationship between Kathleen J. Jennings and the user or browser. The opinions expressed at or through this site are the opinions of the individual author.

Religious Liberty vs. LBGTQ Rights: Narrow Supreme Court Decision Fails to Resolve Many Questions

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By Kathleen J. Jennings (kjj@wimlaw.com)

One of the most eagerly anticipated decisions coming from the U.S. Supreme Court this term was Fulton v. Philadephia, a case involving a Catholic charity’s challenge to a Philadelphia ordinance that excluded it from part of the city’s foster-care program because the charity would not help place children with same-sex couples. The charity argued that the ordinance violated its First Amendment right to religious freedom, and the U.S. Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, agreed. However, the Court’s decision focused very narrowly on the ordinance at issue and did not address the bigger question of what happens when religious liberty and anti-bias laws collide. Thus, it is likely that we will see more litigation on these issues.

What does this decision mean for employers? Not a heck of a lot–yet. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that Title VII prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and sexual identity. But that case did not answer any questions about the possibility of religious defenses to discrimination against LBGTQ employees and applicants. The ultimate question is this: Is there a Constitutional right to discriminate that would override Title VII in some context? 

Certain employers can invoke the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to defend against discrimination lawsuits brought by the government. Religious organizations, such as churches and religious schools, are permitted to give employment preference to members of their own religion under a Title VII exception. Religious groups are likely to continue pushing the boundaries of religious freedom. Whether that push will infringe upon the hard-won rights of LGBTQ people to be free from discrimination remains to be seen.

Kathleen J. Jennings is an attorney licensed to practice law in Georgia and New York. She graduated from Cornell University, College of Arts & Sciences, with distinction and New York University School of Law. She is a principal in the Atlanta office of Wimberly, Lawson, Steckel, Schneider, & Stine, P.C. and defends employers in employment matters, such as sexual harassment, discrimination, Wage and Hour, OSHA, restrictive covenants, and other employment litigation and provides training and counseling to employers in employment matters. She can be contacted at kjj@wimlaw.com.

Copyright 2021 Kathleen Jennings

The materials available at this blog site are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem. Use of and access to this Web site or any of the e-mail links contained within the site do not create an attorney-client relationship between Kathleen J. Jennings and the user or browser. The opinions expressed at or through this site are the opinions of the individual author.

The Cost of Ignoring Racist Behavior in the Workplace

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What is the cost of ignoring racist behavior in the workplace? For a California company, it is $1.25 million dollars.

Air Systems Inc., a subcontractor for the construction of Apple Inc.’s new headquarters in Cupertino, California, paid $1.25 million dollars to eight employees to settle a lawsuit brought by the EEOC that alleged race discrimination in violation of Title VII. Among the allegations: ASI management refused to discipline a White co-worker who repeatedly taunted Black workers with a racist word; the company allowed racist graffiti to remain at the construction site; and it did nothing to address a noose that was hung at the site when it was reported to management.

The Consent Decree entered as part of the settlement also provides substantial non-monetary relief: ASI must retain an Equal Employment Opportunity Consultant to monitor ASI’s compliance with Title VII and the Decree; it must conduct training of its employees; and it must submit regular reports to the EEOC. Basically, ASI will have the EEOC all up in its business until December 31, 2022.

The Black Lives Matter movement has shined a spotlight on the issue of race discrimination. Now, more than ever, companies that ignore complaints of race discrimination, racist comments, and racially charged symbols such as nooses, do so at their peril. Indeed, companies need to be proactive in their training and messaging to employees that racist comments and behavior will not be tolerated in the workplace.

Kathleen J. Jennings is an attorney licensed to practice law in Georgia and New York. She graduated from Cornell University, College of Arts & Sciences, with distinction and New York University School of Law. She is a principal in the Atlanta office of Wimberly, Lawson, Steckel, Schneider, & Stine, P.C. and defends employers in employment matters, such as sexual harassment, discrimination, Wage and Hour, OSHA, restrictive covenants, and other employment litigation and provides training and counseling to employers in employment matters. She can be contacted at kjj@wimlaw.com.

©2020 Kathleen J. Jennings

The materials available at this blog site are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem. Use of and access to this Web site or any of the e-mail links contained within the site do not create an attorney-client relationship between Kathleen J. Jennings and the user or browser. The opinions expressed at or through this site are the opinions of the individual author.

Is a Genetic Mutation a Disability? The Sixth Circuit Says Maybe.

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Is a genetic mutation disability?  Specifically,  is the genetic mutation known as a BRCA1 mutation (Angelina Jolie revealed that she has this mutation) a “disability” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) even though the employee has not yet developed breast cancer?  In a case of first impression, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals said maybe.  (Darby v. Childvine, Inc., No. 19-4214 (6th Cir. June 30, 2020)).

Sherryl Darby underwent a double mastectomy following diagnosis of the growth of abnormal pre-cancerous cells along with the BRAC1 genetic mutation that contributes to abnormal cell growth. Invoking the Americans with Disabilities Act and Ohio law, Darby alleged she was discriminated against when her employer terminated her employment upon learning of her condition. (Interestingly, she did not bring a claim under GINA.) The district court dismissed her claims, concluding that Darby’s genetic mutation had not yet manifested into a disability cognizable under the ADA. The Sixth Circuit reversed the decision below and held that Ms. Darby’s allegations were sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss.

The key issue was whether Darby’s genetic mutation, which had not manifested in cancer, constitutes a “disability” under the ADA. Under the ADA, a disability as defined as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more [of her] major life activities.” 42 U.S.C. § 12102(1)(A).  

Darby argued that her impairment substantially limits her normal cell growth as compared to the general population due to both a genetic mutation (BRCA1) that limits her normal cell growth and a medical diagnosis of abnormal epithelial cell growth serious enough to warrant a double mastectomy.  For purposes of Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the Court agreed and found that Darby’s gene mutation and abnormal cell growth, though not cancerous, qualify as a disability under the ADA. See Lonergan v. Fla. Dep’t of Corr., 623 F. App’x 990 , 993 (11th Cir. 2015) (finding plaintiff successfully alleged a substantial limitation in major life activity of normal cell growth in part due to allegation of “abnormal growth of pre-cancerous cells”). 

The Court further noted that Darby’s claims are entitled to further consideration through discovery: “Particularly with less-well-understood medical issues like the BRCA1 genetic mutation and its effects on “abnormal epithelial cells,” expert medical testimony may help reveal whether Darby’s condition “substantially limits” normal cell growth.”

The Court also stated that a genetic mutation that merely predisposes an individual to other conditions, such as cancer, is not itself a disability under the ADA. The terms of the Act do not reach that far. See Shell v. Burlington N. Santa Fe Ry. Co., 941 F.3d 331 , 335-36 (7th Cir. 2019) (finding no ADA disability where plaintiff based his claim on conditions he feared he would develop as a result of obesity). In other words, in order to rise to the level of a disability, a genetic mutation must have some immediate effect on a person’s body that substantially limit a major life activity.  

The takeaway:  This is an area of the law that is still developing. Thus, each situation must be considered by an employer on a case by case basis.  In order to avoid potential liability under the ADA, an employer must be extremely cautious in its treatment of any employee who presents medical issues related to a genetic predisposition or mutation.  

Kathleen J. Jennings is an attorney licensed to practice law in Georgia and New York. She graduated from Cornell University, College of Arts & Sciences, with distinction and New York University School of Law. She is a principal in the Atlanta office of Wimberly, Lawson, Steckel, Schneider, & Stine, P.C. and defends employers in employment matters, such as sexual harassment, discrimination, Wage and Hour, OSHA, restrictive covenants, and other employment litigation and provides training and counseling to employers in employment matters. She can be contacted at kjj@wimlaw.com.

©2020 Kathleen J. Jennings

The materials available at this blog site are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem. Use of and access to this Web site or any of the e-mail links contained within the site do not create an attorney-client relationship between Kathleen J. Jennings and the user or browser. The opinions expressed at or through this site are the opinions of the individual author.