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Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Mission Hospital, Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Asheville Division

August 7, 2017



          Max O. Cogburn Jr., United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER is before the court on defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (#13) and plaintiff's Motions to Strike (#22) and (#23). The court heard oral argument on these three Motions on July 31, 2017. The matter has been fully briefed and is ripe for review. Having considered the Motions and reviewed the pleadings, the court enters the following Order.

         I. Background

         This is a case about a flu vaccine and, specifically, defendant hospital's requirement that its employees receive a flu vaccination and accommodations provided to its employees related to that requirement. Several employees cited religious reasons for not complying with the hospital's vaccination requirement. Eventually, at least three employees were discharged. Plaintiff asserts that these employees were terminated for their sincerely held religious beliefs. Defendant claims that these employees were discharged for failing to follow its accommodation procedure for religious exemptions for the flu shot vaccine. In addition, plaintiff asserts several issues with discovery and asks the court to strike or disregard certain portions of defendant's filings.

         II. Applicable Standard

         Summary judgment shall be granted “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A factual dispute is genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A fact is material only if it might affect the outcome of the suit under governing law. Id. The movant has the “initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986) (internal citations omitted). Once this initial burden is met, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party. That party “must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Id. at 322 n.3. The nonmoving party may not rely upon mere allegations or denials of allegations in his pleadings to defeat a motion for summary judgment. Id. at 324. Instead, that party must present sufficient evidence from which “a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248; accord Sylvia Dev. Corp. v. Calvert Cnty., Md., 48 F.3d 810, 818 (4th Cir. 1995).

         When ruling on a summary judgment motion, a court must view the evidence and any inferences from the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. “‘Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no genuine issue for trial.'” Ricci v. DeStefano, 557 U.S. 557, 586 (2009) (quoting Matsushita v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986)). In the end, the question posed by a summary judgment motion is whether the evidence “is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252.

         III. Discussion

         The court will first review the defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (#13). Then the court examines plaintiff's Motions to Strike (#22 and #23).

         1. Motion for Summary Judgment

         Plaintiff has lodged a case of religious discrimination under Title VII. Title VII prohibits unlawful employment practices that discharge an individual due to such individual's religion. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). Pursuant to Title VII, an employer must “make reasonable accommodation for the religious observances of its employees, short of incurring an undue hardship.” EEOC v. Firestone Fibers & Textiles Co., 515 F.3d 307, 312 (4th Cir. 2008) (citation and quotation omitted). To show a violation of this “reasonable accommodation” duty, an employee must prove that: “(1) he or she has a bona fide religious belief that conflicts with an employment requirement; (2) he or she informed the employer of this belief; [and] (3) he or she was disciplined for failure to comply with the conflicting employment requirement.” U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Comm'n v. Consol Energy, Inc., 860 F.3d 131, 141 (4th Cir. 2017) (citing Firestone Fibers, 515 F.3d at 312).

         If plaintiff can demonstrate a prima facie case of religious discrimination, the Fourth Circuit employs a burden shifting approach, transferring the burden onto the defendant to demonstrate that it could not reasonably accommodate the plaintiff's religious needs without undue hardship. Firestone Fibers, 515 F.3d at 312. “This is a two-prong inquiry. To satisfy its burden, the employer must demonstrate either (1) that it provided the plaintiff with a reasonable accommodation for his or her religious observances or (2) that such accommodation was not provided because it would have caused an undue hardship-that is, it would have result[ed] in ‘more than a de minimis cost' to the employer.” Id. (citations and quotations omitted).

         In the instant case, it is undisputed that the plaintiffs worked with vulnerable populations for defendant hospital. The claimants include an intake specialist, a pre-school teacher, and a technician, who either interacted with small children or directly with the hospital's patients. (#20) at 5. These individuals requested religious exemptions to the flu vaccine requirement. Plaintiff asserts that 250 employees at Mission Hospital have such religious exemptions to the flu requirement.

         Plaintiff argues that the three discharged employees each had bona fide religious reasons for requesting the exemptions. One claimant, a pre-school teacher, believes that “our bodies are a temple and that God gave us dominion over our bodies” and “injecting the flu vaccine into her body is morally wrong.” (#20) at 3. A second claimant, a psychiatric technician, believes that the followers of her religion are “healed by plants, fruits, and grains.” (#20) at 4. The third claimant, a triage mental health intake ...

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