St. Vincent doctor denied COVID vaccine religious exemption loses 7th Circuit appeal

An Indianapolis doctor who lost his position at St. Vincent Hospital when he refused to get a COVID-19 vaccine on religious grounds has lost his bid at the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals to obtain an injunction requiring the hospital to reinstate him. However, the appellate court found lingering questions as to why other hospital employees were given religious accommodations.

Dr. Paul Halczenko was a pediatric critical care specialist at Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis, which adopted a COVID vaccine mandate in the summer of 2021. Employees had until Nov. 12, 2021, to get vaccinated or to receive a medical or religious exemption.

Halczenko applied for a religious exemption but was denied because, according to the hospital, “providing an exemption to a Pediatric Intensivist working with acutely ill pediatric patients poses more than a de minim[i]s burden to the hospital because the vaccine provides an additional level of protection in mitigating the risk associated with COVID.”

Halczenko and four other St. Vincent employees filed a complaint for religious discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The five plaintiffs were suspended without pay in November 2021, and Halczenko was officially terminated in January.

Halczenko has been unable to find another job since then, which he attributes to a noncompete agreement, his preference not to move his family and limited demand at other hospitals for unvaccinated pediatric physicians.

The five former St. Vincent employees then sought injunctive relief and damages in the Indiana Southern District Court for alleged violations of Title VII. The four other plaintiffs eventually received religious accommodations, although the record does not indicate how they were differentiated from Halczenko.

The district court denied injunctive relief to Halczenko, finding he had shown neither irreparable harm nor an inadequate remedy at law.

According to the 7th Circuit, “As to irreparable harm, Dr. Halczenko staked out a stark litigating position in the district court. He submitted a sworn declaration stating that his professional skills would dull so rapidly and so extensively during any period of extended leave that within six months of being suspended — that is, by May 12, 2022 — he would no longer be fit to work in a pediatric ICU.”

“We cannot discern why Dr. Halczenko seemed to chisel a specific date into stone,” Judge Michael Scudder wrote in the Thursday opinion. “After pressing the same point in his appellate briefs, his counsel backed off the position at oral argument (held on May 31, 2022) when we observed that he was essentially asking a federal court to order the reinstatement of a physician who, by his own admission, had lost competency to practice. Regardless, the district court determined that Dr. Halczenko’s alleged harm was too speculative. … The district court was right to conclude that none of Dr. Halczenko’s alleged harms are irreparable.”

Specifically as to Halczenko’s claim that his skills would deteriorate, the appellate court noted he did not move to expedite his appeal. Also, given that his self-assessed May 12 deadline has passed, “an injunction now would do nothing to prevent this alleged harm.”

“Even more, though, and like the district court, we have a hard time seeing this alleged harm as anything but speculative — too much so to warrant the extraordinary remedy of preliminary injunctive relief,” Scudder wrote.

Even if Halczenko’s alleged harm came to fruition, the appellate court continued, “Title VII itself provides courts with substantial equitable authority to craft remedial measures, including ordering training programs.”

As for Halczenko’s job search troubles, “career jeopardy alone does not amount to irreparable harm,” the court continued

Further, the panel rejected Halczenko’s request to adopt a presumption of irreparable harm in Title VII religious discrimination cases, as well as his reliance on Sambrano v. United Airlines, Inc., No. 21-11159, 2022 WL 486610 (5th Cir. Feb. 17, 2022). It also said the record did not support an inference that St. Vincent was “motivated by an animus towards religion.”

“Rather, it seems St. Vincent ultimately chose to accommodate around 300 workers who had applied for religious exemptions, including two PICU nurses who joined Dr. Halczenko in bringing this lawsuit,” Scudder wrote. “That it chose not to do so for Dr. Halczenko raises questions about the reasons for the differential treatment. But it does not suggest an institutional hostility towards religion — at least not on the record before us.

“Nothing in today’s opinion precludes Dr. Halczenko from pursuing the point further in the district court,” Scudder concluded. “And with litigation being a two-way street, Ascension and St. Vincent will be able to offer their own explanation for affording nurses religious exemptions but choosing to terminate Dr. Halczenko.”

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