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Florida Employees Fired For Refusing COVID-19 Vaccination Denied Injunction Seeking Reinstatement

nurse with syringe and woman refusing from vaccine

For more than two decades, our Citrus County employment lawyers have fought for the rights of employment discrimination victims. Through their extensive experience handling employment discrimination cases, our Inverness, Florida employment attorneys know that many employees experience circumstances where there is a clash between their religious beliefs and employment requirements. The refusal of employees because of their religious beliefs to comply with employer COVID-19 vaccination mandates is a present-day example of a conflict between the religious freedoms of employees and employment requirements. In this article, our Citrus Count employment attorneys explain how the decision by the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida in Leigh v. Artis-Naples, Inc.,  Case No. 2:22-cv-606 (M.D. Fla. Dec. 30, 2022) is illustrative a conflict between the religious freedoms of employees and employment requirements in the COVID-19 vaccination context.

Religious Freedoms Of Employees

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) forbids employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of religion. Title VII defines the term “religion” to include all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief. Title VII not only imposes a duty on employers not to discriminate against employees on the basis of religion, Title VII also imposes an obligation on employers to reasonably accommodate the religious beliefs or practices of employees. Under Title VII’s reasonable accommodation requirement, employers are obligated to accommodate an employee’s religious belief or practice unless the employer proves that it is unable to reasonably accommodate the employee’s religious belief or practice without undue hardship on the operation of its business.

The undue hardship defense, as explained by the court in Beadle v. City of Tampa,  42 F.3d 633 (11th Cir. 1995), refers to “any act requiring an employer to bear more than a ‘de minimis cost’ in accommodating an employee’s religious beliefs.” A de minimis cost, the Beadle court pointed out, includes “not only monetary concerns, but also the employer’s burden in conducting its business.” As observed by the Leigh  court, “examples of undue hardships include negative impacts on the employer’s operations, such as productivity or quality, personnel or overtime costs, increased workload on other employees, reduced employee morale, and the creation of conflicts with other employee’s contractual rights.”

Employment Discrimination Lawsuit

In Leigh, three employees brought an employment discrimination lawsuit against their former employer, Artis-Naples, Inc. (Artis-Naples), pursuant to Title VII. The employees were, until recently, employed as musicians by the Naples Philharmonic. Artis-Naples is a nonprofit arts organization that operates the Philharmonic. The employees claim that Artis-Naples violated Title VII by failing to reasonably accommodate their religious beliefs. Instead of accommodating their religious beliefs, the employers maintain, Artis-Naples terminated their employment.

In July 2021, Artis-Naples announced that it was instituting a COVID-19 policy under which all employees would have to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination by September 7, 2021. The COVID-19 policy allowed exemptions for those who, due to medical or religious reasons, declined to receive a COVID-19 vaccination. The employees are self-described “committed Christians” who refused to receive COVID-19 vaccines because they believe that the vaccines were “developed, tested, or otherwise made from or with fetal cell lines from aborted fetuses.” The employees notified Artis-Naples of their beliefs and sought religious exemptions to Artis-Naples’ vaccine mandate. These exemptions were denied.

In October 2021, Artis-Naples placed the employees on leave with partial pay for the 2021-2022 concert season. Artis-Naples then offered the employees three options: receive the COVID-19 vaccine; (2) take another year of absence—this time unpaid—and return to work in the 2023-2024 season if they received a COVID-19 vaccine, or (3) resign their employment and receive severance pay for one year. Because the employees did not pursue the options offered to them by Artis-Napes, Artis-Naples terminated their employment on June 30, 2022.

As part of their employment discrimination lawsuit, the employees sought a preliminary injunction prohibiting Artis-Naples from replacing their positions in the Philharmonic for the pendency of the litigation, or, in the alternative, immediately reinstating them in the Philharmonic. In defending against the employees’ Title VII claim and the requested preliminary injunction, Artis-Naples maintained that accommodating the employees’ religious beliefs by allowing them to remain in the Philharmonic while unvaccinated constituted an undue burden on the operation of its business. The trial court denied the employees’ request for a preliminary injunction.

Preliminary Injunction Denied

At the outset of its opinion, the trial court explained that a preliminary injunction “is an extraordinary form of relief that is inappropriate where a plaintiff’s harm can be undone through monetary remedies.” The trial court also noted that a preliminary injunction “which goes well beyond simply maintaining the status quo, is particularly disfavored, and should not be issued unless the facts and law clearly favor the moving party.” To receive the requested preliminary injunction, the employees were required to establish, in relevant part, a substantial likelihood of success on the merits and a substantial threat of irreparable injury.

In applying these principles, the trial court determined that the employees “have not shown that they can overcome Artis-Naples’ undue hardship defense.” The trial court explained that “the evidence introduced thus far points to a number of the characteristic forms of undue hardships that courts have traditionally recognized as more than a de minimis cost,” including “risks to employee safety and health, conflicts with the musicians’ collective bargaining agreement, disruption in work routines, forcing musicians to potentially accept unfavorable working conditions, imposing some employees’ religious beliefs on others, and disrupting Artis-Naples’ ability to contract with other artists would not have occurred had the accommodations been granted.

In denying the employees’ requested preliminary injunction, the trial court emphasized its decision “is narrow.” The trial court explained that the employees “failed to present sufficient evidence demonstrating that this court must take the extraordinary step of intervening pre-judgment to order their reinstatement or prevent Artis-Naples from securing their replacements, thereby interrupting Artis-Naples’ business operations.” Its decision, the trial court further explained, does not constitute “any finding as to the ultimate issues of the case.”

Citrus County, FL Employment Lawyers

Based in Ocala, Florida, and representing workers throughout Florida, our employment attorneys in Citrus County, Florida have dedicated their practice to fighting for the rights of employment discrimination victims. If you been denied an accommodation for your religious beliefs or have questions about an employer’s obligation to accommodate your religious beliefs, please contact our office for a free consultation with our employment lawyers in Citrus County, Florida. Our employee rights law firm takes employment discrimination cases on a contingency fee basis. This means that there are no attorney’s fees incurred unless there is a recovery and our attorney’s fees come solely from the monetary award that you recover.

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