Repercussions of Supreme Court’s Groff Decision Start Appearing In Religious Exemption Cases

The impact of the Supreme Court’s June 2023 ruling in Groff v. DeJoy, which raised the standard for employers to accommodate religious exemptions, is beginning to be felt in lower courts. 

Gone are the days when an employer can lawfully disregard a religious accommodation if it imposes more than a de minimis cost on the business.  With Groff, employers must now demonstrate that the burden of granting a religious accommodation for an employee would “result in substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business.”

Though the unanimous Groff decision corrected a strand of jurisprudence that disregarded the “undue hardship” language of Title VII, the immediate impact of Groff is making it more difficult to dismiss questionable lawsuits brought by vaccine skeptics against their employers.

A recent decision from the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon illustrates this difficulty.  In MacDonald v. Ore. Health & Sci. Univ. (No. 3:22-cv-01942), a registered nurse in a maternity unit was a practicing Christian who objected to a Covid-19 vaccination mandate.  After being denied a religious accommodation, the nurse refused to take the vaccine and was terminated.  She promptly sued the hospital.  The hospital sought a preliminary dismissal of the case on the grounds that the nurse’s refusal to be vaccinated posed an undue hardship for three separate reasons:

  • because the Plaintiff regularly interacted with patients in person, and core functions of her job required her to be present in the hospital in person, no adequate accommodation could have served as a viable substitute to vaccination.
  • because Oregon’s administrative rules require healthcare employers to take reasonable steps to ensure that unvaccinated healthcare providers and healthcare staff are protected from contracting and spreading COVID-19, allowing Plaintiff to remain in her position unvaccinated would have put the employer out of compliance with state law, resulting in an undue hardship
  • even if they had granted Plaintiff a religious exemption and allowed her to remain in her position unvaccinated, the requirement under state law that OHSU take reasonable steps to ensure that unvaccinated healthcare providers and healthcare staff are protected from contracting and spreading COVID-19 would have created administrative costs, resulting in an undue hardship.

Though the Court was receptive to the arguments made by the hospital, it would not consider any “extrinsic evidence” on a preliminary motion to dismiss, in which the Court is required to accept the truth of the allegations in the plaintiff’s complaint.  The employer may have obtained preliminary dismissal under the previous “more than de minimis cost” standard, but the Court held that Groff’s undue hardship standard made preliminary dismissal improper.  The hospital may well prevail on summary judgment.  But they will first have to engage in discovery, a time-consuming and expensive process. 

This case does not bode well for employers.  If a maternity nurse who objects to vaccination on questionable grounds can survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, then other employees who do not work in healthcare and do not interact with vulnerable populations will have an even better opportunity at getting religious exemption lawsuits to discovery.  Employers can expect more religious exemption lawsuits, and longer, more expensive, litigation.

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