With the cold weather coming in and winter around the corner, a hot-topic issue is whether the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination protects employees who are discharged for failure to comply with an employer’s mandatory flu vaccination policy.  The New Jersey  Appellate Division recently weighed in on this issue in Brown v. Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center.

Plaintiff worked for the Medical Center as a community health educator.  In 2012, the Medical Center implemented its mandatory flu vaccination policy, requiring all employees to obtain an influenza vaccine each year.  The policy’s stated purpose was “to minimize transmission of the [flu] in the workplace by providing occupational protection to [staff] and thus preventing transmission to fellow [staff members] and to members of the community . . .”  Significantly, employees “who [could not] receive vaccination for religious beliefs supported by documentation from clergy” or due to “documented medical conditions” were exempt from the policy’s requirements.

Initially, Plaintiff requested a medical exemption under the policy, which was denied; and ultimately, she was terminated for failure to comply with the policy.  Following her termination, Plaintiff filed a complaint alleging violations under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination for failure to accommodate her medical condition.  After Defendants filed their Answer, Plaintiff sought to amend her complaint to include a claim of religious discrimination.  The trial court denied Plaintiff’s application to amend her complaint.  On appeal, Plaintiff argued that the policy was “discriminatory on its face” because it “confers a benefit on religious believers that is not available to non-believers” and “bears no rational relation to issues of public health and patient safety,” as “it imposes no restrictions of any kind on those who have been granted exemptions” in order to “facilitate its stated purpose.”

The Appellate Division rejected Plaintiff’s argument for the following reasons:  Plaintiff’s proposed amendment was missing a “key element” in that it failed to allege that she was a member of a protected class, i.e., whether she was in a protected class due to her association with a particular religion or with no religion at all; the proposed amendment did not allege that members of only certain religions were granted religious exemptions while members of other religions were denied; and Plaintiff did not allege that she had a religious objection to being vaccinated, or requested a religious accommodation and was denied the accommodation.  Therefore, based on the foregoing facts, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s decision to deny Plaintiff’s motion to amend her complaint.

Significantly, however, this decision does not necessarily preclude employees from challenging mandatory flu vaccination policies.  Whether mandatory flu vaccination policies violate the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination depends on the language of the policy at issue and the application of specific facts.  Therefore, if you have any questions about the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and/or flu vaccination policies in the workplace, please contact the Law Office of Frank A. Custode, LLC.