Vegan Employee May Proceed with Religious Discrimination Claim

by Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C.
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A federal district court in Ohio has refused to dismiss a complaint for religious discrimination made by a hospital employee after the employee was fired for refusing to be vaccinated for the flu. The basis of the refusal to be vaccinated was the employee’s veganism. The court denied the employer’s motion to dismiss, holding that the plaintiff’s beliefs were sincerely held and, therefore, merited protection under the law. Chenzira v. Cincinnati Children’s Medical Center, No. 1:11-cv-00917 (December 27, 2012).

Sakile Chenzira, a confirmed vegan, was employed by Cincinnati Children’s Medical Center (CCMC) as a customer service representative for over 10 years. A vegan does not ingest any animal or animal by-products. Until 2010, Chenzira was allowed to forego a flu vaccine, which included animal by-products, without disciplinary action being taken against her. In 2010, when Chenzira refused the mandatory vaccine, she was fired. In response, she filed a charge of religious discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and ultimately filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging religious discrimination, along with a related state claim for violation of public policy. CCMC filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, arguing that veganism is not a religion. That motion was denied (although the hospital’s motion to dismiss the state law public policy claim was granted).

A motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) requires a court to determine whether a “cognizable claim” has been pled in a complaint. A plaintiff’s complaint survives such a motion if it contains sufficient factual matter that, if accepted as true, states a plausible claim to relief. In response to CCMC’s argument that Chenzira’s veganism was simply a “social philosophy or dietary preference,” the court pointed out that Chenzira’s claim was supported by the EEOC’s regulations, which state that “religious practices” include moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong that are “sincerely held with the strength of religious views.” Further, Chenzira provided to the court an essay entitled “The Biblical Basis of Veganism,” and cited Biblical passages in support of her claims.

The court found that in the context of a motion to dismiss, Chenzira set forth a “plausible” claim that she ascribes to veganism with a sincerity equating that of traditional religious views. (In a largely unsuccessful attempt to clarify that characterization, the court pointed out that “plausibility” falls “somewhere between probability and possibility.”) In addition, the fact that Chenzira previously had been exempted from the vaccine, along with the EEOC regulations which make it clear that “it is not necessary that a religious group espouse a belief before it can qualify as religious,” helped to support the court’s decision that it was inappropriate to dismiss Chenzira’s claims for religious discrimination under Federal Rule 12(b)6).

This case was decided on specific facts, and does not create a new category of “religious beliefs,” nor does it mean that veganism must be accommodated in every circumstance. Importantly, the court added a comment in its opinion that may be critical to the ultimate outcome of the case: “The Court’s ruling in no way addresses what it anticipates as [the employer’s] justification for its termination of [Chenzira], the safety of patients at [CCMC]. At this juncture, there is simply no evidence before the Court regarding what, if any, contact [Chenzira] might have with patients, and/or what sort of risk her refusal to receive the vaccination could pose in the context of her employment.” Here, the court simply ruled on the sufficiency of the religious discrimination claim filed by Chenzira, finding that she alleged beliefs that may deserve legal protection. The decision is not a determination on the merits of the claims or the defenses.

Maria Greco Danaher is a shareholder in the Pittsburgh office of Ogletree Deakins.

 

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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