Hodges v. Cedars-Sinai Medical Center


In Hodges v. Cedars-Sinai Medical Center (B297864, 5/19/23), the Second District Court of Appeal affirmed a summary judgment in favor of the employer in a disability discrimination case where the plaintiff was terminated after she refused to get a flu vaccine.

Deanna Hodges worked as an administrative employee with no patient-care responsibilities at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for 17 years. Cedars required all hospital employees to get a flu vaccine as a condition of continued employment unless the employee could provide a valid medical or religious exemption. The plaintiff submitted a note from her doctor recommending an exemption based on her past history of cancer and general concerns about allergic reactions to the vaccine. None of these reasons were medically recognized contraindications for getting a flu shot. Cedars denied the medical exemption request. After the employee still refused to get the vaccine, she was terminated. Hodges then sued Cedars for disability discrimination and related claims under the Fair Employment & Housing Act. The trial court granted Cedars’s motion for summary judgment, and Hodges appealed.

In affirming the summary judgment in favor of the employer, the Court of Appeal first observed the plaintiff’s doctor who provided the note was not a cancer specialist. Her doctor’s medical exemption was based on the plaintiff’s stated fear of needles when she had chemotherapy for cancer 10 years earlier, and that her parents experienced flu-like symptoms when they received a flu vaccine 20 years ago. However, the only medically-recognized contraindications for the flu vaccine were a history of serious allergic reactions to the vaccine, or a history of Guillain-Barre Syndrome. In his deposition, Hodges’ doctor acknowledged that his exemption request was not based on either of these conditions.

The Court also reviewed the McDonnell-Douglas burden-shifting framework applicable to FEHA discrimination claims. First, the Court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the McDonnell-Douglas standard should not apply because there was direct evidence of discrimination. The Court found there was no direct evidence of discriminatory intent. Rather, Hodges was terminated because she refused the flu vaccine, and did not provide evidence of a medically recognized contraindication.

To overcome summary judgment under the McDonnell-Douglas framework, Hodges must first establish that she was “disabled” within the meaning of the FEHA. The Court found that Plaintiff’s medical evidence was insufficient to establish she was disabled. There was no evidence presented that plaintiff was at risk of a serious allergic reaction to the vaccine, or how this would limit a major life activity, including working. Further, the Court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that Cedars regarded her as disabled, another basis for a FEHA claim.

Even if Hodges was able to establish she was disabled, the Court held summary judgment was still appropriate under the McDonnell-Douglas framework because Cedars presented a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for her termination and Hodges did not present any evidence of pretext. The evidence established that Hodges was terminated because she did not get a flu shot, and that Cedars’s mandatory vaccine requirement was based on a legitimate concern about patient safety and CDC guidelines.

Significantly, the Court observed that an employer “is not bound to accept an employee’s subjective belief that she is disabled,” and can rely on other medical information. Although the plaintiff’s exemption request was supported by a doctor’s note, the Court found that her doctor’s note was also subjective, and was not based on any medically recognized reason not to get the flu vaccine. The Court also refused to second-guess Cedar’s reasons for implementing a company-wide policy in the first place.

For the same reasons, the Court ruled that Cedars was not under an obligation to engage in the “interactive process” or reasonably accommodate Hodges because she was neither disabled nor regarded as disabled. Finally, the Court rejected the plaintiff’s FEHA retaliation claim because there was no evidence of a causal link between her termination and request for a medical exemption. Rather, the undisputed evidence established Hodges was terminated because she refused to get a flu vaccine.

The Court of Appeal decision is important for several reasons. First, the decision makes it clear that an employee claiming disability discrimination must present credible medical evidence that she is disabled. A non-specific or subjective note from a doctor is not sufficient. Second, although the case involved a regular flu vaccine, its analysis should be equally applicable to an employee’s refusal to get a COVID vaccine. There are numerous pending COVID-related termination lawsuits that may be impacted by the Hodges case. Without credible medical evidence that an employee who was terminated for refusing to get a COVID vaccine was either actually disabled or regarded as disabled, subjective concerns about reactions to the vaccine may be insufficient to get to a jury.

Jeff Fuchsman