2nd Circuit Affirms Dismissal of Sex/Pregnancy Discrimination Claim Arising From Termination Due to Not Receiving COVID Vaccine

In D’Cunha v. Northwell Health Systems, 2023 WL 7986441 (2d Cir. Nov. 17, 2023), the court, inter alia, affirmed the dismissal of plaintiff’s sex/pregnancy discrimination claim asserted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In sum, plaintiff alleged that she was terminated due to her having not received the COVID vaccine, notwithstanding her request for a medical exemption (based on her pregnancy), which the defendant denied.

From the decision:

The district court also did not err in holding that D’Cunha’s complaint failed to plausibly allege that Defendant discriminated against her on the basis of sex.

When asserting a prima facie case of sex discrimination, a plaintiff must establish that “she is a member of a protected class,” “she satisfactorily performed the duties required by the position,” “she was discharged,” and her discharge “occurred in circumstances giving rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination.” Lenzi v. Systemax, Inc., 944 F.3d 97, 107 (2d Cir. 2019) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Likewise, a plaintiff alleging pregnancy discrimination based on the denial of an accommodation must show “that she belongs to the protected class, that she sought an accommodation, that the employer did not accommodate her, and that the employer did accommodate others ‘similar in their ability or inability to work.’ ” Young v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., 575 U.S. 206, 229 (2015).

Here, D’Cunha does not plausibly allege that she was terminated because of her sex. Instead, she alleges that she was terminated by Defendant because of her refusal to get the COVID-19 vaccine. See, e.g., Joint App’x at 8–9 (asserting in the amended complaint that Defendant fired D’Cunha because it “insisted that [D’Cunha] take a vaccine that she could not accept as a matter of concern for her unborn child and her conscience, medical training, common sense, and religious beliefs”). Her amended complaint lacks even “minimal support for the proposition,” at the motion to dismiss stage, that Defendant discharged D’Cunha because of her pregnancy, rather than her status as an unvaccinated, patient-facing resident. Littlejohn v. City of N.Y., 795 F.3d 297, 311 (2d Cir. 2015).

Likewise, to the extent that D’Cunha alleges that the denial of her medical-accommodation request constituted sex discrimination, her complaint does not plausibly allege that Defendant treated her less favorably than non-pregnant employees “similar in their ability or inability to work.” Young, 575 U.S. at 229. Even if we were to accept as true D’Cunha’s assertion that “upon information and belief Defendant granted exemptions to several of its employees to accommodate their pregnancies,” it only undermines an inference of discriminatory intent. Joint App’x at 13; see Turner v. Eastconn Reg’l Educ. Serv. Ctr., 588 Fed. App’x 41, 44 (2d Cir. 2014) (summary order) (explaining that allegations “that a similarly situated pregnant employee … received favorable treatment would undermine any inference that the [d]efendants were motivated by antipregnancy animus”).

Based on this, the court held that the district court properly dismissed plaintiff’s Title VII sex discrimination claim.

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