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Date: 09-08-2023

Case Style:

Pamela Cole v. Group Health Plan, Inc. d/b/a HealthPartners

Case Number: 0:22-cv-02686

Judge: Wilhelmina M. Wright

Court: United States District Court for the District of Minnesota (Hennepin County)

Plaintiff's Attorney:

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Defendant's Attorney: Jody Ward-Rannow and Nathan T Boone

Description: Minneapolis, Minnesota civil rights lawyers represented the Plaintiff who sued the Defendant on a job discrimination theory.

In August 2021, HealthPartners instituted its “Vaccine Mandate,” which requires all employees to either obtain COVID-19 and influenza vaccinations and provided a process for employees to request a medical or religious accommodation that would exempt qualified employees from the otherwise mandatory vaccination policy. If an exemption is granted, the employee must wear “a medical-grade PPE mask at all times while working in a HealthPartners facility” and “additional PPE as appropriate[.]” (Dkt. 1 at 14.) Cole, a physical therapist for HealthPartners, alleges that she is an unvaccinated employee who applied for a religious accommodation, which HealthPartners granted.

Cole alleges that Health Partners discriminated against employees who sought a religious or medical exemption from the Vaccine Mandate. According to Cole, vaccinated employees are distinguished from unvaccinated employees with an orange badge lock that represents the COVID-19 vaccine primary series. And, according to Cole, only HealthPartners employees who are wearing the badge lock are permitted to remove their masks in administrative facilities and non-patient care areas of HealthPartners' hospitals and clinics. Unvaccinated employees also are unable to complete the administrative process necessary to obtain and wear the badge lock, which distinguishes them from vaccinated employees.

Cole alleges that certain employees criticized others for not having the badge lock that indicated their vaccination status. To circumvent awkward situations, Cole chose to attend meetings through Zoom rather than in-person.

Cole maintains that employees who fail to remove their masks in administrative facilities or non-patient areas are presumed to be unvaccinated. And the badge locks, she contends, were designed to serve as a “public indication of vaccination status.” Noncompliance with the Vaccine Mandate rules may result in job termination for employees.

Cole, who practices the Eckankar religion, contends that allowing the COVID-19 vaccine into her body contravenes her religious beliefs. Although HealthPartners has granted her a religious exemption from the Vaccine Mandate, Cole alleges that she has been subjected to differential treatment, which includes not receiving an orange badge lock,
having to wear a medical grade mask, the awareness of her supervisors having knowledge of her religious exemption information, “all employees” knowing her religious exemption status in light of the absence of an orange badge lock and being unable to remove her mask in administrative and non-patient care areas of HealthPartners hospitals and clinics.

Cole submitted a discrimination charge to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) and obtained a right-to-sue letter on July 27, 2022. On October 25, 2022, Cole initiated the current legal action against HealthPartners, alleging violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., with regards to religious discrimination, the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., in relation to the Vaccine Mandate, as well as the Minnesota Human Rights Act (“MHRA”), Minn. Stat. § 363A.01 et seq., with regards to religious and disability discrimination, and breach of contract.

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Cole asserts two causes of action: (1) religious discrimination and failure to accommodate under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and (2) discrimination under the MHRA, Minn. Stat. § 363A.08. HealthPartners moves to dismiss both claims. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) tests the sufficiency of the complaint, not the merits of the case. Poehl v. Countrywide Home Loans, Inc., 464 F.Supp.2d 882, 883 (E.D. Mo. 2006). The court accepts all “well-pleaded factual allegations as true and draws reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor.”

Varga v. U.S. Bank Nat'l Ass'n, 764 F.3d 833, 838 (8th Cir. 2014). Although this ordinarily benefits the plaintiff, a plaintiff may plead herself out of court by pleading facts that establish an impenetrable defense to her claims. Weatherly v. Ford Motor Co., 994 F.3d 940, 944 (8th Cir. 2021).

A complaint will survive if it “state[s] a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).

It is unlawful for an employer to “discharge any individual, or otherwise discriminate against any individual with respect to [that individual's] . . . terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's . . . religion.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). “Religion” includes “all aspects of religious observance and practice,” unless an employer demonstrates the inability to reasonably accommodate the employee's religious observance or practice without creating an undue hardship on the employer's business. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(j). It is unlawful for an employer to fail to make reasonable accommodations for an employee's religious practices, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship. Ansonia Bd. of Educ. v. Philbrook, 479 U.S. 60, 63 (1986).

To establish a prima facie case of religious discrimination for failure to accommodate, Cole must show that she (1) has a bona fide religious belief that conflicts with an employment requirement, (2) informed her employer of this belief, and (3) was disciplined for failing to comply with the conflicting requirement. Jones v. TEK Indus., Inc., 319 F.3d 355, 359 (8th Cir. 2003); Wilson v. U.S. W. Commc'ns, 58 F.3d 1337, 1340 (8th Cir. 1995). If Cole establishes a prima facie case, the burden shifts to her employer, Health Partners, to show that it offered Cole a reasonable accommodation, Wilson, 58 F.3d at 1340, or that accommodating Cole would result in an undue hardship, Seaworth v. Pearson, 203 F.3d 1056, 1057 (8th Cir. 2000) (per curiam). See also Harrell v. Donahue, 638 F.3d 975, 977 (8th Cir. 2011).

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Cole v. Grp. Health Plan (D. Minn. 2023)

Outcome: Defendant's motion to dismiss granted.

09/08/2023 17 NOTICE OF APPEAL TO 8TH CIRCUIT as to 16 Order on Motion to Dismiss/General by Pamela Cole. Filing fee $ 505, receipt number AMNDC-10523964. (Erickson, Gregory) (Entered: 09/08/2023)

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