ASC violated civil rights by denying vaccine exemptions, ex-employees allege

Six former employees of an ASC allege they were fired from the surgery center after they were not granted religious-based exemptions from the COVID-19 vaccine, according to a May 20 complaint filed in the U.S. District Court of Western Michigan.

The plaintiffs argue Traverse City-based Northwest Michigan Surgery Center, which does business as Copper Ridge Surgery Center, terminated their employment in violation of the state's Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act and failed to pay them nondiscretionary bonuses.

The lawsuit stems from CMS' emergency regulation, issued Nov. 4, which required COVID-19 vaccination for staff at healthcare facilities participating in Medicare and Medicaid programs. 

The ASC revised its policy to extend the deadline one week, according to the complaint. Employees were required to receive, at a minimum, the first dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or the only dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine by Dec. 31 and a second dose by Jan. 10.

Plaintiffs allege the stated purpose of the ASC's policy was to protect the health and safety of patients and employees, but that "strains credulity" because neither patients nor construction workers who visit the surgery center were required to be vaccinated.

The plaintiffs in the case provided their employer with exemption applications that included "scripture and anecdotal illustrations of their sincerely held religious beliefs precluding vaccination," but the ASC determined it was unable to reasonably accommodate its employees' religious beliefs "without undue hardship" on the business, according to court documents.

Employees who received a COVID-19 vaccine were awarded a $500 bonus from the ASC and some became hostile against unvaccinated individuals, the complaint alleges.

The lawsuit seeks a declaration that the surgery center violated the state civil rights law and asks for compensation, including back pay, reinstatement or front pay, and punitive damages.

Copper Ridge Surgery Center did not respond to Becker's request for comment on May 23.

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