Vaccine Refusal by Healthcare Worker not Protected by ADA

December 17, 2018

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit has held that an employer did not unlawfully terminate an employee who refused to receive a rubella vaccination. The plaintiff, a healthcare specialist, requested an accommodation exempting her from receiving the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine due to her “many allergies and chemical sensitivities.” She also refused to complete a mandatory health screening. Because she refused to be immunized and examined, her employer terminated her employment. The employee sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) claiming unlawful inquiry, discrimination, and retaliation. We recommend all employers review policies and practices, and that SESCO be contacted if questions remain regarding ADA compliance.

The appeals court concluded that the plaintiff’s unlawful inquiry claim failed because her employer’s mandatory health examination was consistent with the requirements under the ADA. Under the ADA, employers cannot require medical examinations unless those examinations are “job-related and consisted with business necessity.” Here, the court concluded that the examination constituted a valid inquiry because the purpose of the exam was to ensure that employees who interact with patients have evidence of immunity to communicable diseases, and that the exam was job-related, consistent with business necessity, and no more intrusive than necessary.

In addition, the court rejected the plaintiff’s failure-to-accommodate and retaliation claims. The ADA prohibits discrimination against qualified individuals with a disability, which includes an employer’s failure to grant requests for reasonable accommodations. When an employee requests a disability accommodation, the employer and employee must engage in an interactive process to determine the necessity and reasonableness of the accommodation. But, the essential first step of the process is a conclusion that employee indeed has a disability – some physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. Here, the court found that the record did not support that the plaintiff’s alleged chemical sensitivities and/or allergies substantially or materially impaired her ability to perform major life activities. The plaintiff was never hospitalized due to an allergic or chemical reaction, and the court classified her condition as “garden variety allergies to various items that moderately impact her daily living.” Accordingly, the court held that it did not need to reach the failure to accommodate issue, since the plaintiff was not disabled and thus not entitled to any accommodation. Similarly, the court rejected the plaintiff’s retaliation claim as a matter of law.

The ADA is not the only federal law implicated by an employee’s refusal to receive employer-required vaccinations. Employers should be aware that Title VII entitles employees to reasonable accommodation of sincerely-held religious beliefs – including those that prohibit employees from being vaccinated or seeking medical treatment – unless the accommodation would impose undue hardship on the employer. It is also important to note that courts have broadly interpreted both “disability” and “religion” in the mandatory vaccination context. For example, at least one federal court has held that veganism can constitute a sincerely-held religious belief exempting an employee from an employer requirement to be inoculated with a vaccine containing albumen from chicken eggs. Employers with mandatory vaccination policies must tread lightly and explore accommodations because employees with documented disabilities or sincerely-held religious beliefs regarding vaccinations may still be legally entitled to refuse immunizations.