Employees Claim Private School Discriminated Against Them Based On Religion, Race, And Disability Due To School’s COVID-19 Vaccine Policy

CATEGORY: Private Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Private Education
DATE: Aug 31, 2023

In September 2021, the Overbrook School for the Blind, a private school for the blind in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, announced a new policy requiring all employees receive the COVID-19 vaccine, unless they were granted a medical or religious accommodation. The School did not offer a testing option for employees who did not want to receive the vaccine.  If employees did not provide proof of vaccination by the end of November 2021 or did not receive a medical or religious exemption, they would be considered as having resigned from their employment.

Five black employees and one white employee (Plaintiffs) requested accommodations based on their religious beliefs. In response, the School’s HR director told each Plaintiff that the School did not question the sincerity of their religious beliefs; nonetheless, the School denied their requests for accommodations. Despite not receiving the vaccine, Plaintiffs showed up to work on November 29 and 30 and were barred from coming onto the grounds.

Plaintiffs sued the School, asserting religious, race, and disability discrimination claims, and a retaliation claim.

Religious Discrimination Claim:

To make out a case for religious discrimination, employees must demonstrate: (1) they hold a sincere religious belief that conflicts with a job requirement; (2) they informed the employer of the conflict; and (3) they were disciplined for failing to comply with the conflicting requirement. As to what qualifies as a religious belief, the court adopted the following definition:

First, a religion addresses fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters. Second, a religion is comprehensive in nature; it consists of a belief-system as opposed to an isolated teaching. Third, a religion often can be recognized by the presence of certain formal and external signs.

The School argued that Plaintiffs broadly alleged that they held sincere religious beliefs, but they did not identify what those beliefs were. The Plaintiffs argued that requiring them to explain their religious beliefs was highly intrusive and they should have never been forced to divulge their personal beliefs to the School or in their legal complaint. The court agreed with the School and reasoned that without explaining the nature of their religious beliefs, Plaintiffs could not show that they held a sincere religious belief.

Race Discrimination Claims:

The Plaintiffs next claimed that they were discriminated against on the basis of their race. Specifically, the Plaintiffs argued a disparate treatment theory of racial discrimination: that the School intentionally created a policy that resulted in firing employees the overwhelming majority of whom were black.

All five black Plaintiffs said they applied for unemployment and none of them received any assistance because the School opposed it, but the School allegedly did not oppose or otherwise obstruct the successful application for unemployment by the white employee terminated. Similarly, the Plaintiffs alleged that the School did not provide the black plaintiffs with a bonus, but did provide the white Plaintiff with a bonus. The Plaintiffs alleged that the firing of the one white employee was an attempt to camouflage the School’s racist motives.

To make out a case for disparate treatment on the basis of race, the Plaintiffs must demonstrate: (1) they are a member of a protected class; (2) they were qualified for the position they sought to attain or retain; (3) they suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) the action occurred under circumstances that could give rise to an inference of intentional discrimination.

The court allowed the five black Plaintiffs’ claims for disparate treatment to move forward because the Plaintiffs sufficiently plead facts about the unemployment and bonus payments that support an inference of discrimination.

The five black Plaintiffs also alleged a disparate impact theory of discrimination, arguing that the School adopted a vaccination policy that resulted in the discriminatory termination of the five black Plaintiffs.

Employment practices that have the unintentional effect of discriminating based on race are prohibited under Title VII. To establish a disparate impact case, the Plaintiffs must show that a neutral standard caused a significantly discriminatory pattern.

Here, the court found that the Plaintiffs alleged sufficient facts for a disparate impact claim. Specifically, they alleged that the School had a policy that had a disproportionate impact on them because of the prevalence of “vaccine hesitancy” among African Americans. They also alleged that while 36% of the workforce was black, the five black employees terminated pursuant to the vaccine policy constituted 83% of the workers terminated.

Disability Discrimination Claim:

The Plaintiffs next brought a claim that their termination was based on the School’s perception of them as being disabled because they did not receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

To establish a case of disability discrimination, the Plaintiffs must show: (1) that they are disabled within the meaning of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); (2) that they are otherwise qualified for the job, with or without reasonable accommodations; and (3) that they were subjected to an adverse employment decision as a result of the discrimination.

The Plaintiffs argued that they were “regarded as” having a disability because the School required them to receive the COVID-19 vaccine before they could return to work, and therefore treated them as if they were inherently unhealthy, disabled, permanently sick and contagious with COVID-19.  The court ruled that the Plaintiffs failed to show how their vaccination status constitutes a physical or mental impairment under the ADA. Because Plaintiffs did not demonstrate that their COVID-19 vaccination status qualifies as a disability under the ADA, the disability discrimination claims were dismissed.

Retaliation Claim:

Finally, Plaintiffs argued that the School retaliated against them with respect to their religion, race, and disability claims. Title VII prohibits an employer from retaliating against an employee because the employee has opposed an unlawful employment practice or because the employee has made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing.

To establish a case for retaliation, the Plaintiffs must show: (1) protected employee activity; (2) adverse action by the employer either after or contemporaneous with the employee’s protected activity; and (3) a causal connection between the employee’s protected activity and the employer’s adverse reaction.

Plaintiffs argued that applying for a religious accommodation was an instance of protected activity. The School argued that merely applying for the religious accommodation, rather than opposing the allegedly unlawful denial of a religious accommodation, did not constitute protected activity. The School also argued that there was no underlying connection between any protected activity and adverse action.

The court agreed with the School. The School’s actions were not done in retaliation for protected activity, but instead were actions taken consistent with the School’s vaccination policy. The Plaintiffs did not argue that the alleged interference with unemployment was done in retaliation for protected activity, which may have been more successful. Therefore, the court dismissed the retaliation claims.

Divine Equal. Righteous v. Overbrook Sch. for the Blind, (E.D. Pa. July 26, 2023) 2023 WL 4763994.

Note: This case is relevant for private schools with COVID-19 vaccine mandates for employees and shows the variety of claims employees may bring against a school.

View More News

Private Education Matters
Court Stops Enforcement Of Arizona Law That Bans Transgender Girls From Competing On Girls’ Sports Teams
Private Education Matters
Group Of Children Allowed To Challenge Google’s COPPA Conduct Based On State Laws