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Fallon v. Mercy Catholic Medical Center of Southeastern Pennsylvania

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

December 14, 2017

PAUL FALLON, Appellant
MERCY CATHOLIC MEDICAL CENTER OF SOUTHEASTERN PENNSYLVANIA, d/b/a Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital; JOHN DOES 1-10, Fictitious Names of Entities and/or Individuals Whose Identities are Presently Unknown, Individually, Jointly, Severally and/or in the Alternative

          Argued on March 23, 2017

         On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (D. C. Civil Action No. 2:16-cv-00834) District Judge: Honorable Gerald J. Pappert.

          Alan H. Schorr, Esquire (Argued) Schorr and Associates Counsel for Appellant

          Darren M. Creasy, Esquire Andrea M. Kirshenbaum, Esquire (Argued) Post & Schell Counsel for Appellee

          Before: SMITH, Chief Judge JORDAN and ROTH, Circuit Judges.



         Paul Fallon was terminated by his employer, Mercy Catholic Medical Center, because he refused to be inoculated against flu. He opposed the flu vaccine because he believed that this vaccine might do more harm than good. However, Mercy Catholic required its employees to receive the flu vaccine unless they qualified for a medical or religious exemption. In 2014, Fallon sought the exemption on religious grounds. Mercy Catholic ruled that he did not qualify and terminated him when he continued to refuse the vaccine. Fallon sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, [1] arguing that his termination constituted religious discrimination. The District Court dismissed his case with prejudice because his beliefs, while sincere and strongly held, were not religious in nature and, therefore, not protected by Title VII.

         In deciding the case, the District Court considered the full text of an essay that was partially quoted in Fallon's complaint but not submitted in full until Mercy Catholic attached it to the reply brief in support of its motion to dismiss. Fallon now appeals, arguing that his beliefs are religious in nature. He also contends that only the portions of the essay, which were quoted in the complaint, should have been considered. Finally, he asserts that the dismissal should not have been with prejudice. We agree, however, with the District Court and will affirm.

         I. Background[2]

         Fallon began his employment with Mercy Catholic as a Psychiatric Crisis Intake Worker in September 1994. In 2012, Mercy Catholic began requiring employees to obtain a flu vaccine or submit an exemption form to obtain a medical or religious exemption. Any employee granted an exemption was required to wear a mask as an accommodation. While Fallon does not belong to any religious organization, he holds strong personal beliefs, opposing the flu vaccine. In 2012 and 2013, Fallon sought and received religious exemptions, based on personal beliefs which he explained in a lengthy essay attached to his requests for exemption. In 2014, Fallon made a similar request for an exemption, again attaching his essay which he described throughout the complaint in this action, as "explaining his sincerely held beliefs."[3] His request was denied. Mercy Catholic explained to Fallon that it had changed its standards for granting a religious exemption and that Fallon's submission no longer sufficed. Mercy Catholic requested a letter from a clergyperson to support his request for an exemption. Fallon could not provide one. Fallon was suspended and ultimately terminated on December 31, 2014, for failing to comply with the flu vaccine requirements.

         On February 19, 2016, Fallon filed a complaint against Mercy Catholic for, among other things, [4] religious discrimination and failure to accommodate in violation of Title VII. On June 1, 2016, Mercy Catholic filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that Fallon's beliefs were not religious and therefore not protected under Title VII. Fallon opposed the motion to dismiss. Mercy Catholic submitted a reply brief and included, as an attachment, the twenty-two page essay that Fallon had attached to his request for religious accommodation in 2014. On July 26, the District Court held a two-hour hearing on the motion, at which Fallon argued that the District Court could not consider the full essay in relation to a motion to dismiss because the full essay was not part of the complaint. On August 9, 2016, partly on the basis of the full essay, the District Court granted Mercy Catholic's motion to dismiss. Because the District Court concluded that amendment would be futile, the dismissal was with prejudice.

         II. Discussion[5]

         A. Religious Discrimination

         Fallon argues that his complaint properly alleges religious discrimination in violation of Title VII. Title VII makes it an unlawful employment practice for an employer "to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's . . . religion . . .."[6] According to the statutory definitions, "[t]he term 'religion' includes all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief, unless an employer demonstrates that he is unable to reasonably accommodate to an employee's or prospective employee's religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer's business."[7]

         Under Title VII, in order to establish religious discrimination, the employee must have shown that (1) he held a sincere religious belief that conflicted with a job requirement, (2) he informed his employer of the conflict, and (3) he was disciplined for failing to comply with the conflicting requirement.[8] Here, Fallon held a sincere opposition to vaccination that conflicted with the requirement that he receive the flu vaccine, he informed Mercy Catholic of this conflict, and he was terminated for failing to comply with the vaccination requirement. Thus, we are left to consider only whether Fallon's opposition to vaccination is a religious belief under Title VII. If not, he has not pleaded a prima facie case.[9]

         1. The Definition of "Religion"

         As we have acknowledged, "[f]ew tasks that confront a court require more circumspection than that of determining whether a particular set of ideas constitutes a religion . . .."[10]This task is particularly difficult when we have to determine whether a nontraditional faith requires the protections of the First Amendment and/or of Title VII.

         In conducting our review, we bear in mind the history of the judicial definitions of religion. In United States v. Seeger, while interpreting a conscientious objector statute that exempted from conscription those whose religious training and belief made them opposed to war in any form, the Supreme Court put forward a standard for determining whether a belief is religious: "[D]oes the claimed belief occupy the same place in the life of the objector as an orthodox belief in God holds in the life of one clearly qualified for exemption?"[11] With this standard, the Court differentiated between those whose views were religious in nature and those whose views were "essentially political, sociological, or philosophical . . .."[12] The Court stated then, and has continued to reiterate ever since, that no court should inquire into the validity or plausibility of the beliefs; instead, the task of a court is "to decide whether the beliefs professed by a registrant are sincerely held and whether they are, in [the believer's] own scheme of things, religious."[13] Applying the same test later in Welsh v. United States, the Court made clear that belief in God or divine beings was not necessary; nontheistic beliefs could also be religious within the meaning of the statute as long as they "occupy in the life of that individual 'a place parallel to that filled by . . . God' in traditionally religious persons."[14]

         This Court has specifically considered how a belief may occupy a place parallel to that filled by God in traditionally religious persons. In Malnak v. Yogi, confronted with this question, Judge Adams in a concurrence investigated definitions of religion from the time of the Framing of the Constitution. These definitions tended to revolve around belief in God.[15] Finding them inadequate, Judge Adams proposed a modern definition of religion.[16] We later adopted this definition in Africa v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, describing it as follows:

First, a religion addresses fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters. Second, a religion is comprehensive in nature; it consists of a belief-system as opposed to an isolated teaching. Third, a religion often can be recognized by the presence of certain formal and external signs.[17]

         This definition has met with considerable agreement.[18]

         2. ...

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