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Fifth Circuit Upholds Proposed Reasonable Accommodation Offered in Response to Mandatory Vaccination Policy

We have written extensively on mandatory vaccination policies and employers’ obligations to accommodate requests for exemption based on religious or disability grounds.  The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has issued a recent decision that provides helpful guidance to employers who mandate vaccinations.  In Horvath v. City of Leander, No. 18-51011 (5th Cir. Jan. 9, 2020), the Fifth Circuit held that the defendant City of Leander did not violate a firefighter’s religious freedom when it discharged the firefighter after he refused to choose either of two accommodations to the municipality’s vaccination requirement.

In 2016, the City mandated that all personnel be vaccinated against tetanus, diphtheria, and whooping cough (TDAP).  Plaintiff, an ordained Baptist minister, objected on religious grounds, claiming the vaccination violated his beliefs in the sanctity of life and his conscience.  In response, the municipality offered two different accommodations: (1) transfer to a code enforcement position that did not require vaccination; or (2) wear a respirator and other equipment while on duty, submit to testing for possible disease when warranted, and monitor and record his temperature.  Plaintiff refused both accommodations, rejecting the first accommodation outright and saying he would accept the second accommodations only upon certain conditions.  As a result, the City fired him.

Plaintiff pursued federal and state law religious discrimination claims, among others.  On summary judgment, the Court found in favor of the City, holding that the proposed transfer to a code enforcement job constituted a reasonable accommodation.  The Fifth Circuit affirmed. The Court was unpersuaded by plaintiff’s argument that the proposed transfer was not a reasonable accommodation because the duties were less desirable and the shift would have prevented him from working his second job.  While plaintiff may have preferred the duties and hours of the firefighting position, such preference did not make the transfer offer unreasonable nor did the reduction in income due to loss of an outside job.  Instead, plaintiffs are entitled only to a reasonable accommodation, not their preferred accommodation.  Because the transfer offer was reasonable, the Court declined to analyze the second offer.

Employers who have, or are considering implementing, a mandatory vaccination policy of any kind should take note of the City’s actions in this case.  The City properly responded to Plaintiff’s religious objection by offering multiple accommodations and engaging in the interactive process.  As the Fifth Circuit’s decision suggests, only one reasonable accommodation is necessary to meet an employer’s obligation.  If, thereafter, an employee refuses to accept a reasonable accommodation, an employer may take adverse action – including termination of employment – against the noncompliant employee.

©2020 Epstein Becker & Green, P.C. All rights reserved.National Law Review, Volume X, Number 38
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About this Author

Nathaniel M. Glasser, Epstein Becker, Labor, Employment Attorney, Publishing
Member

NATHANIEL M. GLASSER is a Member of the Firm in the Labor and Employment practice, in the Washington, DC, office of Epstein Becker Green. His practice focuses on the representation of leading companies and firms, including publishing and media companies, financial services institutions, and law firms, in all areas of labor and employment relations.

Mr. Glasser’s experience includes:

  • Defending clients in employment litigation, from single-plaintiff to class action disputes,...

202-861-1863
Ann Knuckles Mahoney, Epstein Becker Green, employee handbook attorney
Associate

ANN KNUCKLES MAHONEY is an Associate in the Employment, Labor, and Workforce Management practice, in the New York office of Epstein Becker Green. Ms. Knuckles Mahoney:

  • Counsels employers on practices and procedures, such as employee handbooks and stand-alone policies

  • Advises employers on Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) wage and hour laws and the classification of workers

  • Assists in defending clients in labor and employment-related litigation in a...

212-351-5521
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