Attorneys from Schaerr | Jaffe LLP in Washington, DC, filed a class-action lawsuit in the Eastern District of Tennessee on Tuesday challenging UT-Battelle's discriminatory actions stemming from the company's refusal to grant any reasonable religious or medical accommodations from its COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
UT-Battelle manages Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a research facility of the U.S. Department of Energy. On August 26, 2021, UT-Battelle informed its employees that they must be vaccinated against COVID-19 by October 15. While the company permits employees to submit requests for reasonable accommodations under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), the company later told its employees that the only accommodation it would offer was unpaid leave, and that the company would not reevaluate the situation for 60 days, with no assurance of restoring those employees to their paid positions at that point. Effectively, the choice UT-Battelle offered these employees is: lose your career or forsake your religious beliefs and health. Those options are neither lawful nor reasonable, and the Plaintiffs represent a larger class of employees bringing a civil rights lawsuit to challenge UT-Battelle's failure to engage in the reasonable accommodation process.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit are six UT-Battelle employees who requested religious and/or medical accommodations from the vaccine mandate. The company effectively denied every accommodation request, offering only a so-called “reasonable accommodation” of unpaid leave for at least 60 days, including loss of benefits within those 60 days. This situation presents Plaintiffs with a “lose-lose” scenario; they can either stay true to their faith and forfeit their careers and benefits or violate their beliefs and endanger their health by succumbing to UT-Battelle's heavy-handed mandate.
Federal law precludes an employer from failing to engage in an interactive process when an employee requests a reasonable accommodation. Under Title VII and the ADA, UT-Battelle must provide employees with reasonable accommodations. Plaintiffs argue that this could include mask wearing, periodic testing for COVID-19 antibodies, or periodic COVID-19 testing in line with the U.S. Government's recent announcement of its forthcoming COVID-19 vaccine mandate offering periodic testing as an alternative to vaccination. Such reasonable accommodations are already accounted for by the European Union's vaccine mandate, which accepts either a negative COVID-19 test or proof of a previous COVID-19 infection as acceptable alternatives. UT-Battelle's insistence on a “vaccination-or-else” policy flies in the face of medical science. This is especially true for employees who can work remotely and have done so successfully to date, as those individuals are not physically in the same spaces as other employees, and thus pose zero risk of contracting or transmitting COVID-19 when it comes to their coworkers.
Threatening its employees with indefinite unpaid leaves of absence implicates serious harms for the Plaintiffs, including loss of home and educational opportunities, loss of needed medical treatments due to the loss of insurance, severe mental anguish and distress at the thought of being unemployed in an economy where being unvaccinated could mean you cannot find a new job, and the disruption of their children's education.
To be clear: Plaintiffs do not challenge UT-Battelle's vaccine mandate. They instead merely ask the court to order UT-Battelle to obey federal law and grant reasonable accommodations to employees with legitimate religious or medical reasons for requesting relief.
"This case is about protecting the rights of hardworking and sincere employees at Oak Ridge National Laboratory who are being victimized by their company's oppressive mandate by forcing them to either violate their religious faith or lose their job," said Mark R. Paoletta, the partner at Schaerr Jaffe who is lead counsel in this case. "No one should have to make that terrible choice in America."
"This is not about the merits of the vaccines," explained Paoletta. "The reality is that some people have sincere religious objections to this vaccine, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to respect sincerely held religious beliefs, even if corporations disagree with those beliefs."
"Additionally, some employees have special medical conditions for which their personal physicians—medical specialists who know these patients best and have their best interests at heart—are advising them not to take the vaccine, at least not at this time," Paoletta added. "All Americans have the right to make personal medical decisions in consultation with their physicians, and no one should ever need to violate his doctor's orders to keep his job. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides robust protections for such people, which corporate employers violate at their peril."
Accordingly, Plaintiffs, on behalf of a class likely to exceed 150 employees, ask the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee to prevent UT-Battelle from effectively terminating them. The Plaintiffs further ask that UT-Battelle follow the law by engaging in the interactive process required under Title VII, and grant them reasonable accommodations affording them the right to exercise their faith and/or preserve their health concerns while employed.