A 'surprising' Third Circuit ruling separates religious beliefs from a hospital worker's refusal of a flu shot

By Angela Underwood | Feb 20, 2018

PHILADELPHIA – Religious fervor has nothing to do with refusing a flu shot, according to a federal appeals court in Philadelphia.

Barbara Hoey, a partner at Kelley Drye in New York City, said there is much that employers can learn from the December decision in Fallon v. Mercy Catholic Medical Center of Southeastern Pennsylvania by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. 

The appeal was filed by a 20-year Mercy Catholic Medical Center employee who alleged he was terminated because of his refusal to receive a flu shot and alleged violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 Title VII for religious discrimination.

“First, the decision makes clear that despite an employee’s strong conviction, so strong that the employee chose to write a 22-page essay, the employee would only be exempt from the flu vaccine if he fell within defined criteria,” Hoey said.

Calling plaintiff Paul Fallon's objection based on the Bible’s rule to not harm the body a thinly veiled medical objection, Hoey said the Third Circuit also ruled Mercy Catholic could have been discriminating on the basis of religion even though Fallon could not produce a letter from a clergyperson.

“Thus, an employee’s inability to provide this type of proof is not the be-all, end-all in such matters," Hoey said.

In the appeal, the Third Circuit cited States v. Seeger, a 1965 Supreme Court ruling, as precedent.

“The court stated then, and has continued to reiterate ever since, that no court should inquire into the validity or plausibility of the beliefs; instead, the task of a court is ‘to decide whether the beliefs professed by a registrant are sincerely held and whether they are, in [the believer's] own scheme of things, religious,’” the decision says.

Hoey said the court applied an analysis developed in prior Third Circuit case law to determine if the employee’s beliefs did not qualify as a religion.

“Under that definition, where the employee’s beliefs did not address fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters, were not comprehensive in nature and were not accompanied by certain formal and external signs, the employee’s objection to the flu vaccination was not religious and, as a result, lacked Title VII protection,” Hoey said.

Fallon did not offer any “amendments that would cure the fundamental deficiency in his claims — that his anti-vaccination beliefs are not religious in nature,” according to the decision.

“The employer-friendly nature of the ruling was in some ways surprising,” Hoey said. “Where other courts may take a broader view of ‘religion,’ the Third Circuit did not, and the application of defined criteria resulted in an employer win.”

Hoey said employers should keep in mind that flu vaccine issues will generally entail a case-specific analysis with potentially distinct results in different jurisdictions.

“That said, employers must follow the law and consider religious accommodations,” Hoey said. “It was just reported today that the EEOC (Equal Opportunity Employment Commission) is suing another hospital over a flu vaccine issue, so this is definitely a tricky area.”

Fallon’s case was “dismissed his case with prejudice because his beliefs, while sincere and strongly held, were not religious in nature and, therefore, not protected by Title VII,” according to the court decision.

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