People For the American Way Foundation

Biden Judge Reverses Lower Court and Allows Two Former Employees to Proceed on Religious Discrimination Claim Against Hospital

Biden Judge Reverses Lower Court and Allows Two Former Employees to Proceed on Religious Discrimination Claim Against Hospital

Judge Rachel Bloomekatz, nominated by President Biden to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, wrote a unanimous decision partly reversing a lower court, and allowing former hospital employees to go forward on their claims that the hospital discriminated against them through its blanket denial of their religious exemption request from its COVID-19 immunization requirement. The March 2024 decision was in Savel v MetroHealth System.


What is the background of this case?

MetroHealth is a hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. In August 2021, the hospital told employees that they would be required to receive a COVID-19 vaccination to continue working there, although it explained that it would consider health and religious exemptions. Frank Savel and other employees applied for a religious exemption.

In early February 2022, however, the hospital categorically “denied all the religious exemption requests.” It informed employees that they would be required to be vaccinated “within forty-five days of their exemption denial to remain employed,” with no possible appeal. Savel felt he had no choice and resigned his job at the hospital. He and other employees sued MetroHealth in federal district court, claiming religious discrimination.

Just nine days before the vaccination deadlne, MetroHealth reversed its position. It granted all the religious exemption requests it had previously denied, claiming that the burdens of granting such exemptions had significantly decreased. It filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit against it.

The district court granted the hospital’s request and dismissed all the claims against it, including Savel’s. The employees and former employees appealed to the Sixth Circuit.


How did Judge Bloomekatz and the Sixth Circuit Rule in the Latest Decision and Why is it Important?

Judge Bloomekatz wrote a unanimous opinion that partly upheld and partly reversed the lower court’s opinion. She agreed that most of the employees, who remained working at the hospital after it reversed its position, were not injured and could not sue. Most of the others never applied for an exemption or resigned after the hospital reversed its position.

But two employees who resigned, Savel and one other who the court did not name, resigned after the hospital denied their exemptions and before it changed its position. These two had a credible argument, Bloomekatz explained, that they had suffered “forced resignation” or “constructive discharge,” since the hospital forced them to choose between “following their religion and keeping their jobs.” Accordingly, she wrote, their complaints against the hospital should go forward.

Bloomekatz also reversed the lower court’s ruling that the two former employees had not pleaded “specific facts” in the complaint sufficient to establish a “prima facie case of discrimination.” Bloomekatz explained that this requirement by the court was wrong as a matter of law. Despite Supreme Court precedent establishing more stringent pleading requirements in a complaint, she went on, Supreme Court and other precedent holds that in an initial complaint, a person “does not have to allege specific facts establishing a prima facie case of discrimination.”  Although the two former employees would be required to allege such facts later in the lawsuit after discovery, Bloomekatz concluded, the lower court “expected too much” of them “at this early stage.”

Judge Bloomekatz’s decision is obviously important to the two employees who contend they were forced to resign based on religious discrimination, allowing them to go forward with their claims against the hospital. It also established an important precedent concerning constructive discharge and requirements in an initial complaint in discrimination cases. This is especially true in the Sixth Circuit, which includes Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee. In addition, the case serves as a reminder of the importance of promptly confirming fair-minded nominees like Judge Bloomekatz to our federal courts.