The Southern District of Ohio Rules that Veganism can Constitute a “Moral and Ethical Belief” which is “Sincerely Held with the Strength of Traditional Religious Views,” and Thereby Form the Basis for Claims of Religious Discrimination Under Title VII and Ohio Revised Code Chapter 4112

In Chenzira v. Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, S.D. Ohio No. 1:11-CV-00917 (Dec. 27, 2012), the plaintiff, Sakile S. Chenzira, was employed by defendant Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center (“Children’s Hospital”) as a customer service representative for more than a decade.  Nonetheless, Children’s Hospital fired Chenzira when she refused to be vaccinated for the flu.  Chenzira refused to be vaccinated because she is a vegan – a person who does not ingest any animal or animal by-products.

Chenzira brought a three-count complaint against Children’s Hospital, alleging that her discharge constituted (1) religious discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; (2) religious discrimination in violation of Ohio Revised Code Chapter 4112; and (3) tortious wrongful discharge in violation of Ohio public policy.

Children’s Hospital filed a motion to dismiss Chenzira’s complaint on the basis that (1) Chenzira’s claims were untimely, because she had not filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC within 300 days of Children’s Hospital’s notice to her that she was being discharged; (2) veganism is not a religion that is protected under the law; and (3) her Ohio public policy claim failed because federal and Ohio statutes provided her with adequate relief.

The district court denied Children’s Hospital’s motion to dismiss Chenzira’s claims of religious discrimination under Title VII and Ohio Revised Code Chapter 4112, but granted dismissal of her Ohio public policy claim.

A.        Timeliness

Children’s Hospital notified Chenzira in writing of her termination on November 24, 2010.  Her employment with Children’s Hospital ended on December 3, 2010.  Chenzira’s complaint alleged that she had filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC on September 29, 2011, within 300 days of her “wrongful discharge from employment on December 3, 2010.”  Children’s Hospital asserted that Chenzira’a charge of discrimination was untimely because it was filed 309 days after her written notice of termination — the triggering event to begin the running of the limitations period.

Chenzira responded that her charge was timely because she went to the EEOC pro se in January 2011 and “the agency refused to take her paperwork even though she filled out the EEOC Intake Questionnaire.”  Children’s Hospital replied that filling out an EEOC Intake Questionnaire does not constitute filing a charge of discrimination.  However, the district court disagreed.

The court concluded that under the controlling authority of Federal Express Corp. v. Holowecki, 552 U.S. 389 (2008), the “ . . . Plaintiff’s initial questionnaire, in this instance, can be construed as a charge, such that Plaintiff is not barred by the statute of limitations.”  Chenzira’s pro se status before the EEOC was critical:

The Supreme Court made it clear in Holowecki that pro se litigants, as Plaintiff here, are held to a lower pleading standard, and their filings should be liberally construed.

In the district court’s view, Chenzira’s pro se Intake Questionnaire should be deemed equivalent to the required charge because she “checked the box on the form indicating that she intended to file a charge, she wanted the EEOC to look into the matter, and she authorized the EEOC to let Defendant know of her accusation.”  This constituted a sufficiently detailed request for action to be equated to a charge of discrimination.

B.        Religious Discrimination

Children’s Hospital next argued that Chenzira’s claims of religious discrimination failed because veganism does not qualify as a religion; it is no more than a “dietary preference” or “social philosophy.”

Chenzira responded that her practice constitutes a moral and ethical belief which is sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views, citing 29 C.F.R. § 1605.1, which provides in relevant part, that “whether or not a practice or belief is religious is not an issue . . ..  [T]he [Equal Opportunity] Commission will define religious practices to include moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of religious views.”  Chenzira also submitted to the court an essay entitled “The Biblical Basis of Veganism,” and cited to biblical passages proscribing the consumption of animal products.

In the context of Children’s Hospital’s motion to dismiss, the court merely needed to determine whether Chenzira had alleged a plausible claim.  The court found it plausible that Chenzira could subscribe to veganism with a sincerity equating to that of traditional religious beliefs.

C.        State Public Policy Claim

It is well-established under Ohio law that a claim for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy fails where statutes provide adequate protection and remedies.  Chenzira’s state law wrongful discharge claim failed because Title VII and Revised Code Chapter 4112 provided her with adequate protection and any remedy to which she ultimately may be entitled.

Lessons To Be Learned

The Chenzira case may serve as a painful reminder to Ohio employers that compliance with Title VII and Ohio Revised Code Chapter 4112 can significantly add to the cost of doing business.  Clearly, Children’s Hospital adopted its policy requiring employees to get flu shots solely to enhance the safety of hospital patients and staff. It is unlikely that Children’s Hospital even contemplated that adoption of this patient-safety policy would infringe on an employee’s religious beliefs.  Indeed, although the district court refused to dismiss Chenzira’s religious discrimination claims at the pleading stage, the court expressly acknowledged that “[t]he Court’s ruling in no way addresses what it anticipates as Defendant’s justification for its termination of Plaintiff, the safety of patients at Children’s Hospital.”  However, Children’s Hospital will be required to invest substantial time and money litigating the merits of Chenzira’s religious discrimination claims — with no guarantee that it will prevail.

The Chenzira decision can be found here.

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