"I feel confident in the position that we've taken," says Erica Probst, a partner at Columbus, Ohio-based law firm Kemp Schaeffer & Rowe who is representing all five cases. "I feel confident that Title VII and the ADA would disallow the denial of these requests for accommodation or exemption, and we're excited to be moving forward and hopefully bringing some resolution to our clients."
The complaints against Medline are the latest in a slew of lawsuits filed against U.S. employers and government agencies by workers who say their religious or medical exemptions to vaccine mandates were denied. In the Chicago area, a similar dispute took place between NorthShore University Health System and some former employees, resulting in the hospital chain agreeing to pay $10.3 million in a settlement earlier this year.
According to the lawsuits against Medline, the company announced in August 2021 that all customer-facing employees were required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Nov. 1, 2021, or lose their jobs. According to the complaints, Medline, which manufactures and distributes medical gloves, gowns and face masks, did not offer a COVID testing option as an alternative.
Medline also did not specify whether it would accept religious and medical accommodations at the time of the vaccine mandate announcement, the lawsuits say. Plaintiffs in the suits allege they were told to direct questions about exemptions to Medline's human resources representatives, which provided religious and medical accommodation forms. But plaintiffs allege those forms were just for show.
"Defendant's offer to entertain employees' religious and medical accommodations was illusory," several of the suits read. "Instead, Defendant utilized the religious and medical accommodations to mass terminate unvaccinated employees."
According to the suits, Medline denied virtually all religious and medical accommodation requests and did not provide employees with accommodations, saying unvaccinated employees were unable to do their jobs and that any given accommodation would pose "undue hardship" to Medline.
Medline declined to comment to Crain's on pending litigation and has yet to file responses to the cases in court. However, Probst says that in private discussions between her team and Medline that the company is denying any wrongdoing.
Probst says plaintiffs are seeking back-wages, front-wages, emotional distress damages, attorney fees and other damages from Medline.
Probst says her team has been working to file these suits on behalf of former Medline employees for about a year, since many of the firings occurred. She says suits are only being filed now because of an extensive and required prerequisite process with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that grants individuals the right to sue an employer.
Probst says she plans to file about three more similar lawsuits in federal court for a total of seven cases. She adds that even more Medline employees were terminated over the issue, though she won't cite a specific number.
Medline employed more than 34,000 employees worldwide in 2021, according to its website, in several corporate offices, manufacturing facilities and warehouses across the country, including a downtown office at the Merchandise Mart. The company's corporate headquarters is at the 70-acre former Kraft Heinz campus in Northfield, which Medline purchased in 2016.
One of the suits against Medline was filed by Claude Maxwell Smith III, a Mississippi resident who had worked for Medline for about 27 years before being fired last year. He was most recently the market director of government accounts and applied for a medical exemption to Medline's vaccine mandate, according to his complaint.
Smith says he has Guillain-Barrè Syndrome, a rare condition in which his immune system attacks his nerves, causing paralysis, and that his physician advised him not to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
Another plaintiff, Joshua Rollins, a sales representative in Georgia, says he has a "permanent physical or mental impairment" that prevented him from complying with Medline's mandate. He later also submitted a religious accommodation request, saying he had a sincerely held religious belief against scientific methods that "utilized aborted fetal cells."
A third plaintiff, Jennifer Radecki, a sales representative in Michigan, applied for a religious exemption with a similar concern about aborted fetal cells.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention acknowledges that some vaccine research may have used aborted fetal cell lines in development but that the COVID vaccines do not contain fetal cell tissues.
Concerns about fetal cells were also present among fired workers in the NorthShore case, which is close to ending. Horatio Mihet, the lead attorney for the NorthShore cases and the vice president of legal affairs and chief litigation counsel at Liberty Counsel, a Christian-focused law firm in Orlando, Fla., says the deadline for former employees to submit claims is Nov. 18 and that more than 400 have been submitted as of today. On Dec. 19, a court is expected to finalize the settlement, with checks reaching former employees in January, Mihet says.
In a statement announcing the settlement in July, Liberty Counsel said the NorthShore employees who were fired or resigned because of their religious refusal of a COVID vaccine will receive approximately $25,000 each. Employees who were forced to accept a COVID shot against their religious beliefs to keep their jobs at NorthShore will receive approximately $3,000 each.
NorthShore did not immediately respond to a request for comment today.
Asked about what the NorthShore case outcome means for similar situations, such as the Medline cases, Mihet said: "It puts employers on notice that they will be held accountable for violating the law."
"These are legitimate and strong claims," he says.