Second Circuit Rejects Arbitration-Ordered Procedure for Determining Religious Exemptions to Vaccines in Favor of Title VII Standards

Carlton Fields
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Carlton Fields

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently invalidated an arbitrator’s procedure for determining whether New York City Department of Education employees would receive religious accommodations to a vaccine mandate after finding that the arbitrator’s procedure failed to pass constitutional muster.

In August 2021, New York City’s commissioner of health and mental hygiene adopted a vaccine mandate for most New York City employees who work in New York City’s public schools.

The United Federation of Teachers objected to the mandate on the ground that it did not provide for medical or religious accommodations. That objection led to arbitration, where an arbitrator issued an award providing a process for employees to seek religious accommodations.

The arbitrator’s procedure required covered employees to submit a request that was “documented in writing by a religious official (e.g., clergy).” The procedure then provided that requests would be “denied where the leader of the religious organization has spoken publicly in favor of the vaccine, where the documentation [(apparently, documentation from the religious organization supporting the vaccine)] is readily available (e.g., from online sources), or where the objection is personal, political, or philosophical in nature.” The city’s department of education made an initial determination regarding an accommodation. That decision was subject to appeal to a panel of arbitrators. Employees who were granted an accommodation would remain on the payroll but would not be allowed to enter school buildings. The arbitration award also provided a series of deadlines and allowed the city to place unvaccinated employees who were denied an accommodation on unpaid leave by a certain date and allowed employees on unpaid leave to voluntarily resign from their positions, provided they waived their right to challenge their resignation. Employees who resigned would maintain health insurance but would not be paid.

A group of teachers and administrators challenged the vaccine mandate and the arbitrator’s procedures. They claimed the mandate was unconstitutional on its face and as applied to them through the arbitrator’s procedures. The district court denied the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction and the plaintiffs appealed to the Second Circuit. A motions panel at the Second Circuit heard oral argument on a request by the plaintiffs for interim relief. At that oral argument, the city conceded that the arbitrator’s process was “constitutionally suspect.” The motions panel subsequently granted the plaintiffs partial interim relief, which among other things and in accordance with a proposal from the city, allowed the plaintiffs to receive renewed consideration of their accommodation requests by a citywide panel that applied Title VII’s standards for religious accommodations. The motions panel also stayed the deadlines for resignation and provided that plaintiffs whose requests were granted would receive back pay.

The Second Circuit then addressed the merits of the plaintiffs’ claims, albeit in the context of the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction. The court first found that the plaintiffs were not likely to succeed on their claim that the vaccine mandate was facially unconstitutional. On its face, the mandate was neutral and generally applicable and therefore subject to rational basis review. The mandate satisfied that standard and the plaintiffs’ facial claim failed.

The court then turned to the arbitrator’s procedure, however, which it noted the city’s defense of was “half-hearted at best.” The court found that, unlike the mandate on its face, that process was neither neutral nor generally applicable. The procedure impermissibly determined an employee’s entitlement to a religious accommodation by reference to another person’s (e.g., a clergy person’s) beliefs. The plaintiffs also submitted evidence that the arbitrators who reviewed decisions under the process had substantial discretion that seemed to result in varying standards and seemingly inconsistent results. The court therefore applied strict scrutiny, which the process failed because “whether an applicant can produce a letter from a religious official … is not narrowly tailored to serve the government’s interest in preventing the spread of COVID-19.”

As a result of its decision, the Second Circuit vacated the district court’s ruling and remanded for further proceedings while leaving the relief ordered by its motion panel in place and refusing to order additional injunctive relief requested by the plaintiffs.

Kane De Blasio, No. 21-2711 (2d Cir. Nov. 28, 2021).

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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