Listen to this post

Tyson Foods, Inc. (“Tyson”) is no stranger to religious accommodation lawsuits over the impact of its COVID-19 vaccine mandate given its continued efforts to operate through the height of the pandemic in 2021—but the battle just heated up with a proposed class action complaint filed in the Eastern District of Arkansas.

Tyson’s recent troubles derive from its 2021 vaccine mandate (the “Vaccine Mandate”) requiring all leadership team members to be vaccinated by September 24, 2021, all corporate team members to be vaccinated by October 1, 2021, and all other team members to be vaccinated by November 1, 2021. The Vaccine Mandate coincided with an OSHA rule (which the Supreme Court subsequently ruled unconstitutional) requiring workers with at least 100 workers to be vaccinated or to produce weekly test results showing that they were virus-free. Tyson, a huge company with warehouse operations, clearly fell within its ambit and had strong incentives to keep its workforce safe.

Notably, while in place, the OSHA rule required employers to grant medical and religious exemptions from the mandate. Likewise, Tyson’s Vaccine Mandate required Tyson to afford reasonable accommodations to employees with sincerely-held religious beliefs that prevented them from receiving the vaccine, as required by the OSHA rule. However, various plaintiffs have alleged that the only accommodation typically offered to religious objectors was to be placed on an unpaid leave of absence called LOA+, which lasted approximately one year. Plaintiffs claim that requests to telework were refused in favor of this unpaid leave.

One of the first suits to be filed was Reed, et al., v. Tyson Foods, Inc., No. 21-CV-01155-STA-JAY, 2022 WL 2134410 (W.D. Tenn. June 14, 2022), in which several plaintiffs sought injunctive relief against the Vaccine Mandate in part on religious and disability theories under Title VII and the ADA. Though parts of the case were allowed to proceed, these specific claims were dismissed without prejudice for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. Tyson also succeeded on defeating religious claims based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”) on a motion to dismiss in another Tennessee case, after failing to secure dismissal in another, similar case based on Title VII and the RFRA. Compare Johnson v. Tyson Foods, Inc., No. 21-CV-01161-STA-JAY, 2023 WL 3901485 (W.D. Tenn. June 8, 2023) with Hayslett v. Tyson Foods, Inc., 636 F. Supp. 3d 900 (W.D. Tenn. 2022). The latter case settled out-of-court in July 2023.

Beyond these, Tyson also faced other single-plaintiff suits on religious vaccine accommodation grounds in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Missouri, with varying results. Matthews v. Tyson Foods, Inc., No. 1:22-CV-1192-STA-JAY, 2023 WL 25733 (W.D. Tenn. Jan. 3, 2023)(motion to dismiss denied under Tennessee state law); Collins v. Tyson Foods, Inc., No. 1:22-CV-00076-GNS, 2023 WL 2731047 (W.D. Ky. Mar. 30, 2023)(motion to dismiss granted under RFRA, ADA, and Kentucky state law, but denied under Title VII); Reese v. Tyson Foods, Inc., No. 3:21-05087-CV-RK, 2021 WL 5625411 (W.D. Mo. Nov. 30, 2021) (motion to dismiss granted as to public policy and invasion of privacy claims, but denied under state discrimination law). Some of these cases were subsequently settled, as well.

On November 16, 2023, plaintiff Sarah Pearson brought a proposed class action complaint in Pearson v. Tyson Foods Inc., 4:23CV01080, purporting to represent:

All Arkansas based Tyson employees or former Arkansas based Tyson employees who worked remotely (telework) prior to August 3, 2021, who requested a religious accommodation to continue working remotely (telework) in response to Tyson’s COVID Vaccine Mandate, and who were instead placed on LOA+ by Tyson;

and

All Arkansas based Tyson employees or former Arkansas based Tyson employees who worked remotely (telework) prior to August 3, 2021, who requested a religious accommodation when Tyson ended its COVID Vaccine Mandate on October 31, 2022, and who were subsequently not reinstated to the same job and terminated.

For each, Pearson recites the allegations required to sustain a class action: numerosity (in excess of 50 putative class members, per her complaint), commonality, typicality, and adequacy. These allegations can prove tricky in the case of sincerely-held religious beliefs and leaves of absence, but not necessarily impossible. Compare Robinson v. Gen. Motors Co., No. 4:15-CV-158-Y, 2015 WL 13731154 (N.D. Tex. Oct. 21, 2015) (denying class certification in part because “determining individual class members would require the Court to wade through thousands of leave requests and evaluate each individual’s circumstance . . . to determine whether a GM employee even qualifies . . .”) with Jennings v. St. Luke’s Health Network, Inc., No. 5:23-CV-1229, 2023 WL 5938755 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 12, 2023) (denying without prejudice motion to strike class action allegations in religious discrimination vaccine case, pending discovery).

Here, Pearson’s complaint reveals numerous specific allegations which are likely specific to her, including that Tyson offered her an in-person job in a different city once the Vaccine Mandate ended, which she declined.  However, it remains to be seen if Tyson’s alleged policy of placing all religious objectors on leave may break through the barriers to commonality, typicality, and adequacy otherwise posed by, e.g., different religions, belief systems, communications with human resources, and leave requests.

Following these recent developments, employers are advised to remember that religious discrimination accommodation requests should not be taken lightly, and should result in an individualized interactive process with each employee. Even apparently implausible religious beliefs, associated with religions that do not otherwise espouse such beliefs, may be (or be deemed by a court to be) sincerely-held.