Healthcare Headache: New Jersey Healthcare Network a Target for EEOC Religion Claim

Recent filings show healthcare employers remain susceptible to religious discrimination claims.

In August, the EEOC filed suit against Hackensack Meridian Health (“Hackensack”), a New Jersey healthcare network, alleging an employee was harassed due to religion. According to the complaint, Hackensack hired Jojy Cheriyan in August 2015 to perform clinical informatics work. The EEOC alleges that his supervisor discovered that Mr. Cheriyan was Catholic, which sparked a strong negative reaction. According to the complaint, the supervisor “exhibited disapproval” when he observed a crucifix in Mr. Cheriyan’s office, and began treating Mr. Cheriyan in a hostile and verbally abusive manner, which included screaming at Mr. Cheriyan during meetings, belittling him and his work, tearing his work up and throwing objects at him.

The EEOC claims that Hackensack was aware of the harassment – due to Mr. Cheriyan’s complaints to management – yet failed to take reasonable corrective actions to put an end to the treatment.

At this time, the litigation is in its infancy with only the August complaint on the docket and an answer due in a few weeks. In its press release about the case, the EEOC’s New York District Director stated, “[p]eople of all religions are entitled to go to work and do their jobs without fear of harassment.”

What to Take Away From This Case? Two Lessons

1. What types of religious items (putting aside clothing) may an employee exhibit in the workplace and when can a manager limit such? Are there restrictions?

The EEOC Compliance Manual on Religious Discrimination provides some insight but does not provide a clear answer. To some degree, the EEOC seems to say that the answer depends on whether the display is in a public place.

2. How Should a Supervisor Handle a “Religious” Display?

It is unknown if the plaintiff’s manager in the healthcare case actually was hostile or abusive toward the plaintiff. It is likely, however, that any conversation about the crucifix became tense, and may have brought about the charge.

A supervisor should not discuss religion with employees. Period. If an issue arises regarding religious observance, a supervisor should talk to human resources and get guidance about how to speak to the employee.

Clearly, any exchange that is perceived as hostile to religion could spur a discrimination claim.

The EEOC Compliance Manual on Religious Discrimination provides the following example:
  • “Susan and Roger are members of the same church and are both employed at XYZ Corporation. Susan works as an architect in a private office on an upper floor, where she occasionally interacts with co-workers, but not with clients. Roger is a security guard stationed at a desk in the front lobby of the XYZ building through which all employees, clients, and other visitors must enter.”
  • "At a recent service at Susan and Roger’s church, the minister distributed posters with the message 'Jesus Saves!' and encouraged parishioners to display the posters at their workplaces in order to 'spread the word.' Susan and Roger each display the poster on the wall above their respective work stations. XYZ orders both to remove the poster despite the fact that both explained that they felt a religious obligation to display it, and despite the fact that there have been no complaints from co-workers or clients. Susan and Roger file charges alleging denial of religious accommodation.”
According to the EEOC guidance:
  • For Susan, XYZ Corporation “will probably be unable to show that allowing Susan to display a religious message in her personal workspace posed an undue hardship, because there was no evidence of any disruption to the business or the workplace which resulted.”
  • But for Roger, “because Roger sits at the lobby desk and the poster is the first thing that visitors see upon entering the building, it would appear to represent XYZ’s views and would therefore likely be shown to pose an undue hardship.”
In addition, employers must not forget that an employer’s rights under the First Amendment may also come into play in such situations. To make things more complicated, government employers have their own unique considerations.

As religious holidays occur throughout the fall and beyond, employers should carefully consider any display of religion in the workplace and ensure both managers and employees are educated accordingly.