Court opens door to lawsuits by ex-Mayo workers fired over COVID shots and tests

A federal appeals court has cleared the way for five former employees who were fired over religious objections to Mayo Clinic’s COVID-19 vaccination and testing policies to proceed with wrongful termination lawsuits against the Rochester medical giant. The ruling reverses a lower court decision and opens the door for additional lawsuits against Mayo, according to the Post Bulletin.

The three-judge panel of the St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on May 24 that U.S. District Court Judge John Tunheim erred when he ruled in August 2023 to dismiss the cases that raised religious issues linked to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Minnesota Human Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, and for breach of contract.

“The district court erred by emphasizing that many Christians elect to receive the vaccine,” U.S. Circuit Judge Duane Benton of the Appellate Court wrote. “Beliefs do not have to be uniform across all members of a religion or acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others.”

Three of the plaintiffs were denied a religious exemption by Mayo. The other two plaintiffs were granted a religious exemption, but refused to comply with a requirement to be tested for COVID every week. They were among hundreds of Mayo Clinic employees who lost their jobs after refusing to be vaccinated.

Mayo Clinic defended its decisions this week in response to the appellate court decision.

“Mayo Clinic established its vaccination program to protect the health and safety of our staff, patients and communities. The program included an exemption to accommodate sincerely held religious beliefs, and Mayo granted the majority of requests for religious exemptions,” a Mayo Clinic statement reads. “In its decision, the Court of Appeals did not criticize Mayo’s vaccination program or its employment actions; rather, the court merely ruled that the plaintiffs may resume their legal claims. Mayo intends to vigorously defend those claims, including through trial if necessary.”

The five cases may be just the beginning. The plaintiffs’ attorney, Gregory Erickson, also represents dozens more individuals who were formerly employed by Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and beyond.

“We knew we were going to win. The law on this is pretty clearly established and the district court basically ignored clearly established law,” he said.

Erickson said the next step is to start the discovery process and move toward a jury trial, possibly later this year. Looking to the future of his other 105 clients in Minnesota, Arizona and Wisconsin, he anticipates about 20 jury trials could result from Mayo Clinic’s actions.

Minnesota Lawyer found it noteworthy that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed an amicus brief in support of the fired employees.

James Driscoll-MacEachron of the EEOC asked the 8th Circuit to reject the district court’s “unduly narrow” interpretation of religion used to dismiss the Title VII claims. “When you combine that inclusive definition of religion with a relatively forgiving pleading standard, you set a low threshold for pleading religion.”

The court agreed with the EEOC. “When Kiel, Ringhofer, and Miller’s complaints are read as a whole, they plausibly plead religious beliefs that conflict with Mayo’s vaccine requirement,” Judge Duane Benton wrote for the three-judge panel. 

Mayo Clinic has not announced whether it will appeal the Eight Circuit Court decision or get move forward in preparation for what may be numerous COVID-related lawsuits brought by former employees.