Terminating a hospital administrator for refusing to get a flu shot in violation of employer policy is not prohibited by FEHA.
Deanna Hodges worked for Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in an administrative role with no patient care responsibilities. Cedars terminated her employment because she refused to get a flu vaccine. Cedars’s flu vaccine policy made exceptions for employees who established “a valid medical or religious exemption.” Employees who declined the vaccine “based on medical contraindication, per CDC guidelines” were required to submit an exemption request completed by their physician. Hodges’s doctor wrote a note recommending an exemption based on her history of cancer and general allergies. None of those reasons were medically recognized contraindications, however. Hodges continued to refuse a flu vaccination after Cedars’ review panel declined her exemption request, so Cedars terminated her employment. Hodges sued Cedars for disability discrimination and related claims under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). The trial court granted Cedars summary judgment, and Hodges appealed.
The Court of Appeal affirmed. Because there was no direct evidence that Cedars acted with a “prohibited motive,” the court applied the McDonnell Douglas three-step burden-shifting framework commonly used in employment discrimination cases and concluded that Hodges failed to show a prima facie case, the initial step. The court explained that terminating a person because she refused to get a flu shot in violation of employer policy is not prohibited by FEHA. The court noted that there was no evidence that Cedars terminated Hodges because she was “unable” to get the vaccine, or due to any claimed disability. To the contrary, the direct evidence, including the written policy and exemption request form, showed that Cedars had a policy of terminating employees who failed to receive the flu vaccine without a religious exemption or medically recognized contraindication to receive the flu vaccine, and that it followed the policy here. The court noted that Cedars would have prevailed at other steps of the burden-shifting framework as well: Cedars presented a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for terminating Hodges, and Hodges failed to argue the reason was pretextual.
The bulletin describing this appellate decision was originally prepared for the California Society for Healthcare Attorneys (CSHA) by H. Thomas Watson and Peder K. Batalden, who are partners at the appellate firm Horvitz & Levy LLP, and is republished with permission.