Lane v. Bayhealth Medical Center Inc.

Filing 21

MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Richard G. Andrews on 2/5/2024. (nms)

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IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF DELAWARE SHARITI A. LANE, Plaintiff, Civil Action No. 23-102-RGA v. BAYHEALTH MEDICAL CENTER, INC., Defendant. MEMORANDUM OPINION Gary E. Junge (argued), SCHMITTINGER & RODRIGUEZ, P.A., Dover, DE, Attorney for Plaintiff. Stacy A. Scrivani, Alexis R. Gambale, STEVENS & LEE, P.C., Wilmington, DE; Lisa M. Scidurlo, STEVENS & LEE, P.C., King of Prussia, PA; Michl el M. Greenfield (argued), Sasha A. Phillips, STEVENS & LEE, P.C. , Philadelphia, PA; Therd a M. Zechman, STEVENS & LEE, P.C., Lancaster, PA, Attorneys for Defendant. February_£, 2024 1 I Before me is Defendant' s Motion to Dismiss. (D.I. 13). I have considered the parties' I briefing. (D.I. 14, 15, 17). I heard oral argument on January 4( 2024 on a group of cases, including the present action, involving religious discrimination claims with regards to I Defendant's COVID-19 vaccine policy. (Hearing Tr.). 1 For the reasons set forth below, this I motion is GRANTED in part and DISMISSED as moot in part I. BACKGROUND This case stems from the COVID-19 pandemic and a healthcare provider' s efforts to respond to government vaccination policy. The Amended col plaint (D.I. 7) is the operative I complaint and alleges the following facts. I On August 12, 2021 , Governor John Carney ordered all Delaware state health care employees either to become vaccinated for the COVID-19 virus by September 30, 2021 or to submit to regular testing for the COVID-19 virus. In November 2021 , the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services ("CMS") issued a COVID-19 vaccine mr date requiring certain health care facilities, including Defendant, to ensure their staff members were all either vaccinated against COVID-19 or had obtained medical or religious exemptions to taking the vaccine. I Pursuant to Defendant' s vaccination policy, employee~ seeking religious exemption requests were required to submit forms explaining the religious beliefs that formed their basis of their objection to the COVID-19 vaccine. (See D.I. 7-1 , Ex. _j)_ Employees could attach I additional materials, such as letters from religious leaders, to support their exemption request. (Id.). 1 Citations to the transcript of the argument are in the format "Hearing Tr. at _ ." I 2 Employees who had their religious exemption requests rejected, and continued to refuse the COVID-19 vaccine, were terminated on February 28, 2022. Plaintiff was one of these employees. Plaintiff subsequently filed the present suit raisinJ religious discrimination claims against Defendant under Title VII (Count I) and the Delaware Discrimination in Employment Act ("DDEA") (Count II). See 42 U.S .C. § 2000e; DEL. Corn; ANN. tit. 19, § 711. Defendant moves to dismiss Plaintiffs claims pursuant to FED. R. Crv. P. 12(b)(6). (D.I. 13). II. LEGAL STANDARD A. Rule 12(b)(6) Rule 8 requires a complainant to provide "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." FED. R. Crv. P. 8(a)(2). Rule 12(b)(6) allows the accused party to bring a motion to dismiss the claim for failinf to meet this standard. A Rule 12(b)(6) motion may be granted only if, accepting the well-pleaded allegations in the complaint as true and viewing them in the light most favorable to the corpplainant, a court concludes that those allegations "could not raise a claim of entitlement to relief." Bell At!. Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S . 544, 558 (2007). The factual allegations do not have to be detailed, but ~hey must provide more than labels, conclusions, or a "formulaic recitation" of the claim elj ments. Id. at 555 ("Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the ~peculative level . .. on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact)."). Moreover, there must be sufficient factual matter to state a facially plausible claim to relief. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). The facial plausipility standard is satisfied when the complaint' s factual content "allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. ("Where a complaint pleads facts that are merely 3 consistent with a defendant's liability, it stops short of the line between possibility and I plausibility of entitlement to relief." (internal quotation marks omitted)). B. Failure to Accommodate Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against an employee based on that employee's religion. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(l). The staL te defines "religion" to include I "all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief, unless an employer demonstrates that he is unable to reasonably accommodate to an employee's or prospective employee's religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer's business." 42 U.S.C. § 2000eG). To establish a prima facie case of religious discrimination under Title VII based on a failure to accommodate theory, an employee must show that (l) the employee "held a sincere 1 religious belief that conflicted with a job requirement," (2) the employee "informed their employer of the conflict," and (3) the employee was "disciplided for failing to comply with the conflicting requirement." Fallon v. Mercy Cath. Med Ctr. of~e. Pa., 877 F.3d 487, 490 (3d Cir. I 2017). "Plaintiffs are not required to establish each element to survive a motion to dismiss; they must simply allege sufficient facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will uncover proof of their claims." Finkbeiner v. Geisinger Clinic, 623 F. Supp. 3d 458, 465 (M.D. Pa. 2022) (citing Connelly v. Lane Constr. Corp., 809 F.3d 780, 789 (3d Cir. 2016)). A district court's inquiry into whether a plaintiff has plausibly plead the first prong of a I prima facie religious discrimination claim is limited to determining whether the belief is (1) I "sincerely held" and (2) religious within the plaintiffs "own s6heme of things." Welsh v. United States, 398 U.S. 333,339 (1970) (quoting United States V . Seer er, 380 U.S. 163, 185 (1965)). 4 With respect to the first prong of this inquiry, " [w]hether a belief is sincerely held is a question of fact." Geerlings v. Tredyffrin/Easttown Sch. Dist., 12021 WL 4399672, at *6 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 27, 2021) (citing Seeger, 380 U.S. at 185). I With respect to the second prong, determining whether a plaintiffs beliefs are religious "presents a most delicate question." Africa v. Pennsylvania, 662 F.2d 1025, 1031 (3d Cir. 1981). "[l]t is nonetheless incumbent upon the court to ensure that the alleged beliefs are rooted in a plaintiffs religion and are entitled to the broad protections guJ anteed thereunder." Aliano v. Twp. of Maplewood, 2023 WL 4398493, at *5 (D.N.J. July 7, 2023) (citing Fallon, 877 F.3d at 490). "The notion that all oflife's activities can be cloaked with religious significance" cannot transform an otherwise secular idea into a religious belief. Afoica, 662 F.2d at 1035. "[T]he very concept of ordered liberty" precludes allowing any individual l'a blanket privilege 'to make his own standards on matters of conduct in which society as a whole has important interests."' I Africa, 662 F.2d at 1031 (quoting Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 215- 16 (1972)). The Third Circuit has adopted the three Africa factors to differentiate between views that are "religious in nature" and those that are "essentially political, sociological, or philosophical." Fallon, 877 F.3d at 490- 91 (quoting Seeger, 380 U.S . at 164);1Africa, 662 F.2d at 1032. A judge must determine whether the beliefs in question (1) "address fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters," (2) "are comprehensive in nature," and (3) "are accompanied by certain formal and external signs." FallQn, 877 F.3d at 491 (quoting Africa, 662 F.2d at 1032) (cleaned up). The Africa court tackled the issue of analyzing non-traditional "religious" beliefs or practices by "look[ing] to familiar religions as models in order to ascertain, by comparison, whether the new set of ideas or beliefs is confronting the same concerns, or serving the same 5 purposes, as unquestioned and accepted ' religions."' Africa, 662 F.2d at 1032 (quoting Malnak v. Yogi, 592 F.2d 197,205 (3d Cir. 1979) (Adams, J., concurring)); Fallon, 877 F.3d at 491 (describing the process as considering "how a belief may occupy a place parallel to that filled by God in traditionally religious persons."). The Africa factors were adopted as "three 'useful indicia' to determine the existence of a religion" pursuant to tJ is "definition by analogy" approach. Africa, 662 F.2d at 1032. Their applicability to a p~rson who professes a more widely I recognized, "traditional" religion is a little less obvious. 2 However, because individuals cannot "cloak" all personal beliefs "with religious significance," a court must still scrutinize whether a sincerely held belief, asserted by someone claiming a recogniled religion, is sufficiently connected to their religion. Id. at 1035; see Griffin v. Massac~usetts Dep't of Revenue, 2023 WL 4685942, at *5 (D. Mass. July 20, 2023) ("[T]he issue in this dase is not whether plaintiff has asserted a plausible claim that she has a personal religious faitf. . . . Plaintiff does not claim that she has suffered unlawful discrimination because she believes in God. Rather, she claims that she has suffered unlawful discrimination because she was req4ired to comply with the COVID1 19 vaccination requirement. The critical question, therefore, is whether the complaint alleges I sufficient plausible facts from which it could be reasonably inferred that being vaccinated against COVID-19 violates a tenet or principle of her religious belief. p. Of course, individuals may have religious beliefs whicp are not widely accepted within their religion. See Thomas v. Rev. Bd. of Ind. Emp. Sec. Div., 450 U.S. 707, 708 (1981)("The guarantee of free exercise is not limited to beliefs which are s4ared by all of the members of a religious sect"); 29 C.F.R. § 1605.1 ("The fact that no religio} group espouses such beliefs or Plaintiff follows a recognized religion that already meets the lthree Africa factors. (See D.I. 7 ~ 17). 2 6 the fact that the religious group to which the individual professes to belong may not accept such belief will not determine whether the belief is a religious beliJ I of the employee or prospective employee."). Beliefs of this nature would, logically, fail to be ~ufficiently linked to the individual's claimed religion and need to satisfy the Africa stapdard to qualify as religious beliefs. "[The DDEA] prohibits employment discrimination in ( tatutory language nearly identical to Title VIL" Spady v. Wesley Coll. , 2010 WL 3907357, at *3 n. 4 (D. Del. Sept. 29, 2010); see DEL. CODE ANN. tit. 19, § 71 l(b). "[Courts] evaluate plaintiffs' DDEA claims under the same framework used to evaluate Title VII claims." Spady, 2010 WL 3907357, at *3 n. 4 (citing Witcher v. Sodexho, Inc., 24 7 F. App'x 328, 329 n. 1 (3d Cir. 2007); Hyland v. Smyrna Sch. I Dist., 608 F. App'x 79, 83 n. 5 (3d Cir. 2015) (instructing that r the standards under Title VII and the DDEA are generally the same"). C. Disparate Treatment To establish a prima facie case of religious discrimination under Title VII based on a disparate treatment theory, an employee must show that (1) the employee is "a member of a protected class," (2) the employee "suffered an adverse emplo~ment action," and (3) "nonmembers of the protected class were treated more favorably ." Abramson v. William I I Paterson Coll. of NJ, 260 F.3d 265, 281 - 82 (3d Cir. 2001). Depending on whether the plaintiff proceeds under a pretext or mixed-motive theory, they must ultimately prove that their protected status was either a "motivating" or a "determinative" factor in the employer's challenged action. Connelly, 809 F.3d at 787- 88. 7 III. DISCUSSION A. Failure to Accommodate At this stage of the case, only one issue exists- whether Plaintiff has sufficiently pled I that the belief upon which her objection to receiving the COVlD-19 vaccine was based is a religious belief. "[T]o adequately plead a ' religious belief,' a plaintiff must allege some facts regarding the nature of her belief system, as well as facts connecting her objection to that belief system." Aliano, 2023 WL 4398493, at *5. "In other words, she must demonstrate that her objection arises from a subjective belief that is tied to her beli9f system which meets the Africa factors." Id. (citing Africa, 662 F.2d at 1032; Fallon, 877 F.2d at 492- 93 (concluding that the plaintiffs "anti-vaccination beliefs are not religious" but providing "[t]his is not to say that antivaccination beliefs cannot be part of a broader religious faith; in some circumstances, they can, and in those circumstances, they are protected")); see also Brdwn v. Child. 's Hosp. of Phi/a., 794 F. App'x 226, 227 (3d Cir. 2020) ("[I]t is not sufficient merel) to hold a 'sincere opposition to vaccination'; rather, the individual must show that the ' opposition to vaccination is a religious belief."' (quoting Fallon, 877 F.3d at 490)); Griffin, 2023 WL 4685942, at *5; Ellison v. !nova Health Care Servs., 2023 WL 6038016, at *6 (E.D. Va. Sept. 14, 2023) (A plaintiff should "provide□ sufficient allegations regarding [their] subjective pi rsonal beliefs, how those beliefs are related to [their] faith, and how those beliefs form the basis of [their] objection to the COVID-19 vaccination."). Defendant argues that Plaintiffs objection to the vaccine stems from Plaintiffs personal moral code rather than from her religious beliefs. 3 (D.I. 14 at 8- 15; D.I. 17 at 5- 9). 3 Defendant does not challenge Plaintiffs assertion that her re\igious faith of non-denominational Christianity meets the Africa test. Rather, Defendant argues the beliefs on which Plaintiffs objection to the vaccine is based are secular beliefs based on Plaintiffs personal moral code, as 8 Plaintiff identifies two categories of beliefs which she argues qualify as religious beliefs. I (See D.I. 20 at 6 (placing Plaintiff under the "Cannot change God Given Immune System/Healing Power rests with God" and "Cannot Defile BJ dy Because it is a Temple of the Holy Spirit" categories); D.I. 7 ~ 19). For the following reasons, I find Plaintiff has failed to adequately plead facts that show either of these categories are religious beliefs that form the basis of her objection to the COVID-19 vaccine. 1. "God-given Immune System" Belief Plaintiffs exemption form admits, "I have not been able to find any Scripture from the Bible stating verbatim that I should not vaccinate." (D.I. 7-1, Ex. A, at 3 of 4). She insists, however, "I understand through my translation of the Word ofi God that the [COVID-19] immunization is contrary to my genuine religious beliefs." (Id.). She provides a list of Bible I verses that she interprets to "convey[] [her] strong refusal to the [COVID-19] vaccine." (Id. at 3-4 of 4; see, e.g. , Matthew 9:12 (" ... those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick."); 1 Timothy 5:8 ("But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for the members of his household, he has denied the faith and I fS worse than an unbeliever.")). Plaintiff asserts, "I do not believe that immunizations can heal 1 as that is God's job." (Id. at 4 of 4). Referencing the Bible verses, she states, "The Bible states that I should visit the doctor when I am sick, not well; therefore, if I were to receive the immunizfltion and become ill[,] I would not be able to provide for my family, thus going against God ' s Word." (Id.) . I I opposed to religious beliefs that form a part of Plaintiffs Christian faith. (See D.I. 14 at 8-15; D.I. 17 at 5-9). I therefore address only the questions at issue; whether Plaintiff has sufficiently connected her objection to the vaccine to a religious belief tieq to her Christian faith or whether the beliefs that form the basis of Plaintiffs objection would otherwise satisfy the Africa standard. 9 Plaintiffs objection relies on the premise that she could "become ill" if she "were to receive the immunization." (Id.). Plaintiffs belief is "predicated fundamentally on her concerns I I with the safety of the vaccine." Passarella v. Aspirus, Inc., 2023 WL 2455681, at *5 (W.D. Wis. I Mar. 10, 2023). Plaintiff does "not articulate any religious belief that would prevent her from taking the vaccine if she believed it was safe." Id. The dependence of Plaintiff's objection to the COVID-19 vaccine on her scientific and medical beliefs is also clear from her stance on other vaccines! Plaintiff states, "I was brought up to follow rules and guidelines set by trained experts," and, "Mbst times this feels right; therefore, I have received immunizations in the past." (D.I. 7-1, Ex. A, at 3-4 of 4). It is therefore clear there is no religious belief preventing Plaintiff from receiving vaccinations in general. Plaintiff's exemption form, however, fails to describe a religious belief that would lead her to object to the COVID-19 vaccine in particular. Plaintiff instead appears to f fferentiate the vaccines based on whether it "feels right" to adhere to the "rules and guidelines set by trained experts" and based on her medical judgment regarding the "risks and benefits" of the vaccine. 4 (Id. at 4 of 4 ("I have reviewed the facts, weighed risks and benefits, and sought God and His Word in order to help me come to a decision regarding the [COVID-19] vaccine.")). Plaintiff's medical beliefs do not qualify as religious beliefs under Africa. "It takes more thb a generalized aversion to harming the body to nudge a practice over the line from medical to religious." Geerlings, 2021 WL 4399672, at *7; see also Fallon, 877 F.3d at 492. "The notion that we should not harm our I bodies is ubiquitous in religious teaching, but a concern that a treatment may do more harm than 4 Plaintiff's exemption form does state,"! see a clear differenL between helping a health body with medical interventions versus a sick body." (D.I. 7-1, Ex. A, at 4 of 4). I am uncertain on how this notion helps differentiate Plaintiff's stance on the COVID-19 vaccine from her stance on other vaccines, as both still fall under the category of imm4nizations used as part of preventative care. 1 good is a medical belief, not a religious one." Geerlings, 2021 WL 4399672, at *7 (quoting Fallon, 877 F.3d at 492) (cleaned up). At oral argument, Plaintiffs counsel took the position that "[h]arming my body is the religious belief' expressed by Plaintiff. (Hearing Tr. at 34:15-35 :12 ("[I]fl believe [the vaccine] is going to cause long-term harm to my body, then my truly-held religious belief is that my body I is a temple of the Holy Spirit, and I should put nothing in my body that's going to harm it. That's religious belief.")). Plaintiffs counsel effectively seeks to "clpak[] with religious significance" Plaintiffs concern that the vaccine will harm her body. Africq, 662 F.2d at 1035. The Third Circuit has already rejected such a position. Id. (explaining "[t]he notion that all of life's activities can be cloaked with religious significance" cannot trrsform an otherwise secular idea into a religious belief). Several other district courts handling ~imilar religious discrimination cases involving the COVID-19 vaccine have also found such medical judgments do not qualify as religious beliefs. See, e.g., McKinley v. Princeton Univ., 2023 WL 8374486, at *4 (D.N.J. Dec. 1, 2023); Ellison, 2023 WL 6~38016, at *5; Winans v. Cr x Auto, Inc., 2023 WL 2975872, at *4 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 17, 2023); Ulrich v. Lancaster Gen. Health, 2023 WL 2939585, at *5 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 13, 2023); Passarella, 2023 WL 2455681, at *5-7; Geerlings, 2021 WL 4399672, at *7; contra, Aliano, 2023 WL 4398493, at *8- 9. Plaintiffs insistence that she "sought God and His Word in order to help [her] come to a decision regarding" the vaccine does not save her claim. (D.I. 7-1, Ex. A, at 4 of 4). Allowing Plaintiff the ability to object to anything based on the practice of "praying on it" would grant her the type of "blanket privilege" that does not qualify as religious belief under Africa. Griffin, 2023 WL 4685942, at *6- 7. "'[T]he very concept of ordered liberty precludes allowing' [Plaintiff], or any other person, a blanket privilege 'to make his own standards on matters of I 11 conduct in which society as a whole has important interests ."' I Jd. ( citing Yoder, 406 U.S. at 215- 16). Several other district courts handling similar religious discrimination cases involving the COVID- 19 vaccine have similarly found such beliefs to , ount to "blanket privileges" that do not qualify as religious beliefs. See, e.g. , Lucky, 2023 WL f7095085 , at *4- 7; Ellison, 2023 I WL 6038016, at *5; Ulrich, 2023 WL 2939585, at *5; Blackwell v. Lehigh Valley Health Network, 2023 WL 362392, at *8 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 23, 2023); Finkbeiner, 623 F. Supp. 3d at 465. Plaintiffs counsel argued that whether a belief amounted to a "blanket privilege" presents an issue of sincerity that should be reserved for a jury!. (Hearing Tr. at 33:3-14). The Africa court, however, indicated that a principal reason that courts engaged in the practice of I making "uneasy differentiations" between religious and nonreligious beliefs was to prevent any individual from retaining a "blanket privilege 'to make his oJ standards on matters of conduct in which society as a whole has important interests."' See Africa , 662 F .2d at 1031. I find it proper to consider this question when dealing with religiosity. As noted above, other district courts have likewise examined the "blanket privilege" question at the motion to dismiss stage. 2. "Body is a Temple" Belief Plaintiffs exemption form includes the quote, "Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from GJ d? You are not your own ... [.]" I (D.I. 7-1, Ex. A, at 3 of 4 (citing 1 Corinthians 6:19)). Plaintiff, however, provides no information regarding how this "Body is a Temple" belief prohibits her from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. "Plaintiff does not describe her religious beliefs or principles in any 1 I meaningful way, or how they relate to vaccines generally, or the COVID-19 vaccine specifically." Griffin, 2023 WL 4685942, at *7. Plaintiff "mj st provide more than conclusory 12 allegations that a belief is religious; [she] must allege facts explaining how a subjective belief is religious in nature and connect [her] objection to that belief." IE!lison, 2023 WL 6038016, at *7. For the reasons stated above, I find Plaintiffs Complaint does not plausibly allege that Plaintiffs objection to receiving the COVID-19 vaccine was based on a sincerely held religious belief. At oral argument, Plaintiffs counsel agreed that, in th, event that I found a plaintiff had not adequately pled a religious belief, dismissal with prejudice was the proper path forward . I (Hearing Tr. at 65:1- 9). I will therefore dismiss Plaintiffs failure to accommodate claim with l prejudice. B. Disparate Treatment Defendant argues that Plaintiff has failed to sufficient! plead a religious discrimination claim under Title VII based on disparate treatment. (D.I. 14 al 15). Plaintiff states that she has I not yet pled disparate treatment. (D.I. 15 at 18). I agree with pefendant that Plaintiffs assertion of "differential treatment" presents some confusion about whether a disparate treatment claim has been raised. (D.1. 17 at 9 n. 20). Nevertheless, since Plai1tiff states she is not now pleading disparate treatment, I accept that she is not, and I will dismiss Defendant's argument as moot. I C. Plaintiffs DDEA Claims A federal court has supplemental jurisdiction over a state law claim when the claim "arise[s] out of a common nucleus of operative fact" with the blaims over which the court has I original jurisdiction. United Mine Workers ofAm. v. Gibbs, 383 U.S. 715 , 725 (1966); see 28 U.S.C. § 1367(a). A federal court "may decline to exercise sul plementaljurisdiction over a I claim . . . if ... the district court has dismissed all claims over iwhich it has original jurisdiction . . . ." 28 U.S.C. § 1367(c)(3). Given my disposition of Plaintiffs Title VII claims, I decline to 13 exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Plaintiffs remaining DDEA claims. I will dismiss Plaintiffs claims under Count II without prejudice. IV. CONCLUSION For the foregoing reasons, Defendant's motion to dismiss (D.I. 13) is GRANTED in part and DISMISSED as moot in part. An appropriate order will issue. 14

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