The law firm that is representing United Airline plaintiffs is now representing employees at Oak Ridge National Laboratory who were put on unpaid leave after filing for religious exemption.
The research laboratory is managed by the University of Tennessee-Battelle (UT-Battelle), a not-for-profit company established to operate the U.S. Department of Energy-sponsored center comprised of 5,500 staff members.
Attorneys from Schaerr Jaffee LLP, a firm based in the District of Columbia, filed a class-action lawsuit Oct. 12 challenging what it said were UT-Battelle’s “discriminatory actions stemming from the company’s refusal to grant any reasonable religious or medical accommodation for its COVID-19 vaccine mandate.”
In August, UT-Battelle initiated its vaccine mandate.
Though the company allows for employees to submit requests for exemptions under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act, it later told about 140 employees they will be put on unpaid leave as of Oct. 15, despite their approval for exemption.
Leon Workman, a Linux systems engineer with UT-Battelle, had previously disclosed a Sept. 22 email in which the company’s human resource director said that the accommodations for the exemptions would cause “undue hardship” for the company.
“In evaluating your request, UT-Battelle has concluded that the only reasonable accommodation that we can provide to you, without presenting an undue hardship, is to allow you to remain a UT-Battelle employee, but without access to campus, by providing you with an unpaid leave of absence,” Zahn said in the email.
“You may elect to designate vacation time use prior to beginning your unpaid leave, but if you do not do so, your unpaid leave of absence will begin on Oct. 16 if you choose to remain unvaccinated.”
A Lose-Lose Scenario
According to the firm in a press release, this was a choice between losing one’s career or forsaking one’s religious beliefs and health.
“Those options are neither lawful nor reasonable, and the plaintiffs represent a larger class of employees bringing a civil rights lawsuit to challenge UT-Battelle’s failure to engage in a reasonable accommodation process,” the firm stated.
The company’s “vaccination-or-else” policy goes against medical science, the law firm said.
“This is especially true for employees who can work remotely and have done so successfully to date, as those individuals are not physically in the same spaces as other employees, and thus pose zero risk of contracting or transmitting COVID-19 when it comes to their coworkers.”
Mark Paoletta, a partner in the firm who is lead counsel on the case, said in the press release that the case is “about protecting the rights of hardworking and sincere employees at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, who are being victimized by their company’s oppressive mandate by forcing them to either violate their religious faith, or lose their job. No one should have to make that terrible choice in America.”
A federal judge on Tuesday ordered United Airlines not to place workers seeking an exemption to the company’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate on unpaid leave.
The temporary ruling was issued by U.S. District Judge Mark Pittman so workers who filed for an exemption aren’t unduly harmed before he can hear oral arguments in the case.
In September, under threat of a temporary restraining order, the firm said United Airlines agreed to temporarily pause its vaccine mandate until Oct. 15 for employees who submitted religious or medical exemptions.
“We are pleased that under a threat of a temporary restraining order, United Airlines postponed its heartless and unlawful vaccine mandate that would impose on approximately 2,000 employees the unconscionable choice of violating their religious faith, violating their doctors’ orders, or essentially losing their job,” said Paoletta.
On behalf of the UT-Battelle plaintiffs, the firm asked the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee to prevent the company from effectively terminating them and for UT-Battelle to grant “reasonable accommodations” by “affording them the right to exercise their faith and preserve their health concerns while employed.”
UT-Battelle did not respond immediately to a request for comment.
Zachary Strieber, Mimi Nguyen Ly, and Jack Philips contributed to this report.