Another holiday season is right around the corner, which means this employer-friendly ruling from the Sixth Circuit provides timely guidance — just in time for Christmas, Hanukkah and other religious celebrations.
The court upheld the terminations of two employees who hosted an after-hours holiday party at the height of the pandemic – just days before the first COVID-19 vaccine was granted emergency use authorization in the U.S.
As you well know, the issue of how to respond to the pandemic has been a deeply polarizing one. But regardless of whether you agree with the outcome – or think the company went too far – the decision has a bigger lesson for HR pros.
More broadly, this ruling reaffirms that employers can terminate at will employees without warning, and for any reason – so long as the reason is not illegal. (As an FYI, there are three major common law exceptions to the at will presumption: public policy, implied contract, and implied covenant of good faith.)
Healthcare workers host Christmas party during pandemic
In 2019, a Delaware-based healthcare company hired Rhonda Dahlquist and Sheila Knight as at-will employees to work at a location in Tennessee.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, on Dec. 11, 2020, Dahlquist and Knight hosted an after-hours Christmas party at Knight’s home. Several of their co-workers attended the party.
On Dec. 31, the company fired Dahlquist and Knight, saying they had “violated company directives and exhibited ‘poor judgment’ by hosting a party that subjected all attendees – including [several other company] employees – to risk of exposure to COVID-19.”
Terminated for religious views?
Dahlquist and Knight sued, alleging religious discrimination. They alleged that as Christians, they expressed their religious faith by “celebrating Christmas and expressing that belief with Christmas parties.”
The district court was not swayed. It pointed out that Dahlquist and Knight “were the only two attendees at the holiday party who were terminated,” even though several of their co-workers also went to the party. (Emphasis in original.)
On appeal, the Sixth Circuit agreed with the lower court, saying that the plaintiffs’ own allegations that the co-workers attended the party and were not fired undermined their “assertions that religion was a motivating factor in [the company’s] decision to terminate their employment.”
Dahlquist and Knight failed to plausibly allege the company discriminated against them because of their religion, the Sixth Circuit held, so it affirmed the ruling in the company’s favor.
Next, Dahlquist and Knight asserted claims of common-law retaliatory discharge. To state valid claims, they had to show that:
- They were at-will employees
- They were discharged
- The reason for termination was that they “attempted to exercise a statutory or constitutional right, or for any reason which violates a clear public policy,” and
- A substantial factor in the company’s decision to terminate them was their “exercise of protected rights or compliance with clear public policy.”
A Tennessee statute, which took effect after Dahlquist and Knight were fired, prohibits “any adverse employment action based on an employee’s refusal to obtain a COVID-19 vaccine or to show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination.”
Citing their constitutional right to assemble, for the first time on appeal, Dahlquist and Knight said this statute applied.
Even if it did apply, the court said they still failed to plausibly allege that their “protected activity was a substantial factor” in the company’s decision to fire them, which was fatal to their claim.
In the court’s view, Dahlquist and Knight presented “conclusory allegations or legal conclusions masquerading as factual allegations,” which wasn’t sufficient to support their claim. Thus, it affirmed the lower court’s ruling to dismiss the retaliatory discharge claim.
Dahlquist v. Amedisys, Inc., No. 22-5154 (6th Cir. 10/7/22).