Seyfarth Synopsis: In a published decision, a California Court of Appeal has ruled that a hospital's decision to terminate an employee for failing to comply with its flu vaccine mandate did not violate California's Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) prohibition on disability discrimination. Hodges v. Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
Deanna Hodges was employed by Cedars-Sinai Medical Center (Cedars) in an administrative role with no patient care responsibilities. As a condition of her continued employment, she was required to get a flu vaccine unless she obtained a valid exemption—one establishing a medically recognized "contraindication" to getting the flu vaccine. Hodges obtained a note from her doctor recommending an exemption based on Hodges's history of cancer and general allergies. However, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) does not recognize either of these reasons as a valid medical contraindication to getting the flu vaccine. Consequently, Cedars denied the exemption request, and urged Hodges to reconsider her decision not to get the vaccination. Hodges demurred and was terminated.
In response, Hodges sued Cedars for several causes of action under FEHA, including disability discrimination, failure to engage in the interactive process, and failure to accommodate a disability. Cedars moved for, and was granted, full summary judgment by the trial court.
The Court of Appeal's Decision
The California Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's grant of summary judgment. In doing so, the Court of Appeal first had to wrestle with several questions regarding the legal standard for Hodges's claims.
Hodges argued that the McDonnell Douglas burden shifting test should not apply when there is direct evidence that the employer's challenged conduct was motivated by prohibited reasons. The Court of Appeal agreed on this point, but was quick to note that Hodges had not provided any direct evidence that her termination resulted from animus or retaliation, as "terminating a person because she refused to get a flu shot in violation of employer policy is not prohibited by FEHA." Thus, the onus was on Hodges to make out a prima facie case under the Act.
The Court ultimately found that Hodges was unable to do so, and that Cedars's decision to terminate Hodges was nondiscriminatory. Specifically, the Court held that Hodges did not suffer from a physical disability under FEHA. While Hodges's history of cancer was certainly a physical condition, it was not a disability under FEHA because it did not "limit a major life activity"—Hodges conceded that her prior cancer did not limit her ability to perform her job duties.
Furthermore, Hodges offered no evidence that the possible side-effects of the vaccine would amount to a disability. Put differently, even if Hodges were to suffer a moderate allergic reaction because of the flu vaccine, she would still be able to perform her job as well as other major life activities.
While the Court of Appeal could have ended its analysis there, it continued to the second part of the McDonnell Douglas test and found that Cedars's decision to terminate Hodges was legitimate and nondiscriminatory. Fundamental to this determination was the fact that "Cedars's policy for medical exemptions from the flu vaccine relied on CDC guidance."
Cedars was careful to align its policies with those of the CDC, such as the recommendation that all healthcare workers, regardless of whether they were performing administrative tasks or patient care, be vaccinated against the flu. Similarly, the Court of Appeal made clear that an "employer is not bound to accept an employee's subjective belief that she is disabled." Here, Cedars was entitled to rely on CDC guidance, applied by its own physicians, to conclude there was no objective evidence of disability. In short, "Cedars terminated Hodges not because she was or was regarded as disabled, but because Cedars regarded her as not disabled."
What Hodges Means for Employers
This decision adds much-needed guidance to a vexing and evolving area of law. Particularly now, in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, employers must be prepared to navigate the potential entanglements between vaccine requirements and FEHA.
Hodges is critical because of its twin holdings that (1) a minor reaction to a vaccine is not a disability, and (2) an employer is not bound to accept an employee's subjective belief that they are disabled. In addition, this case confirms that FEHA does not prohibit an employer from adopting a policy recommended by a federal agency for limiting the spread of diseases. It likely will play an important role in the many pending COVID vaccination cases, and not be limited to flu vaccinations.
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