Alan Schorr’s Employment Case of The Week ending October 11, 2013

Murphy v. Somerset Medical Center, HUN-468-13 (Hunterdon County, September 27, 2013)

Following up on last week’s article regarding the difficulty in Federal Court of reasonable accommodations for religious beliefs under Title VII, this week’s Case of the Week, Murphy v. Somerset Medical Center, leads with a Count of creed discrimination under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. The lawsuit, filed by our firm on behalf of the plaintiff, Marie Murphy, has additional counts for religious discrimination, failure to accommodate religious beliefs under subsection (q) of the NJLAD, retaliation for failing to produce a false medical report under CEPA, and post-termination retaliation for challenging unemployment benefits. As there has been no Answer filed yet, this article will only cite to the pleadings.

Marie Murphy alleges that she was a secretary in the bed control area at the Somerset Medical Center. She alleges that the hospital put a flu shot policy into effect in September 2012 which required all hospital personnel to get flu shots. There were three exceptions under which an employee could avoid the shot: (1) if the employee proved he/she already had received a shot; (2) the employee had an acceptable medical condition exemption; or (3) the employee demonstrated a religious need to be excused from the vaccination. If an employee was unable to take the shot for medical or religious reasons, they would be required to wear a mask on patient units or in areas of patient care.

Ms. Murphy requested a religious exemption, advising that she held a religious belief that the flu vaccine was against her understanding of Christianity and the Bible. She alleges that when she requested a religious accommodation, she was told that she should apply for a medical exemption instead and that she was told that “you could just say you have a fear of needles.” Ms. Murphy alleges that she refused to lie about her medical condition. The employer would not accept a personal statement of religious belief and insisted upon a letter from Ms. Murphy’s clergyman. Unfortunately, the letter from Ms. Murphy’s pastor did not expressly state that her church held a belief against flu shots. Instead the Pastor’s letter stated:

“I am writing in reference to Marie Murphy. She has contacted me as her Pastor in reference to a mandatory flu shot and a religious exemption letter. We do not believe it is the role of government or an employer to mandate certain individual behaviors. We also acknowledge there may be consequences to following those beliefs. It is imperative to understand that it is not the position of this church to not take shots but rather we believe that a person has the right to make those individual choices.”

Ms. Murphy alleges that the employer rejected the letter and demanded that, since Ms. Murphy’s church did not have a religious policy against flu shots, she was given an ultimatum to take the flu shot or be terminated. When Ms. Murphy again objected on religious grounds, she was terminated. Murphy alleges that the hospital granted 167 medical exemptions, but that every single request for religious accommodation, including hers, was denied.

Here is where the NJLAD is so much better than Federal law. I am still steaming mad about last week’s 10th Circuit decision reversing a verdict against a Muslim female who was not hired because she wore a head scarf (blog). The 10th Circuit accomplished its disgraceful rejection by importing the worst parts of the Americans With Disabilities Act into Title VII. In New Jersey, the LAD is explicit. There is a separate subsection, N.J.S.A. 10:5-12(q)(1), that deals exclusively with the cause of action of failure to accommodate religious beliefs. It states, among other things, that it is unlawful:

For any employer to impose upon a person as a condition of obtaining or retaining employment, including opportunities for promotion, advancement or transfers, any terms or conditions that would require a person to violate or forego a sincerely held religious practice or religious observance, including but not limited to the observance of any particular day or days or any portion thereof as a Sabbath or other holy day in accordance with the requirements of the religion or religious belief, unless, after engaging in a bona fide effort, the employer demonstrates that it is unable to reasonably accommodate the employee’s religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.

Another interesting wrinkle in this case in that the complaint leads with a Count for “creed” discrimination. Although “creed” is the second enumerated class in which discrimination is proscribed under N.J.S.A. 10:5-12(a), second only to “race”, it is rare to see a creed discrimination claim. Creed is differentiated from “religion” in this Complaint because Ms. Murphy is alleging that she was terminated because of her individual religious beliefs, as opposed to her Christian religion. She also has a Count for religious discrimination, but that is based upon her allegation that medical exemptions were approved but religious exemptions were not, and therefore the hospital discriminated against those objecting on religious grounds.

This should be an interesting case. This column will monitor developments.

Plaintiffs’ Counsel: Alan H. Schorr, Alan H. Schorr & Associates, P.C.

Defendants’ counsel: No Answer filed yet.