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Date: 05-22-2023

Case Style:

Sherry L. Mendoza v. J.M. Smucker Company

Case Number: 5:22-CV-2281

Judge: J. Philip Calabrese

Court: United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio (Summit County)

Plaintiff's Attorney:

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Defendant's Attorney: Courtney L. Burks, Jonathan M. Linas, Joshua E. Pittman, Yvette M. Brown

Description: Akron, Ohio civil rights lawyers represented Plaintiff who sued Defendant on a job discrimination theory.

Like many employers, The J.M. Smucker Company required its workforce to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Under its policy, and to comply with the law, Smucker afforded employees medical or religious exemptions. Plaintiff Sherry L. Mendoza requested an exemption based on her religious beliefs. Specifically, Ms. Mendoza objected that she could not receive the available vaccines consistent with her Christian faith because they were developed from fetal cell lines of aborted fetuses. Put to the choice, as she saw it, “between her God and her job” (ECF No. 1, ¶ 37, PageID #7), Ms. Mendoza adhered to her faith, lost her job, and initiated this lawsuit.

* * *

Defendant The J.M. Smucker Company is an international seller of food products with its principal place of business in Orville, Ohio. (ECF No. 1, ¶ 3, PageID #2.) “Four in five American pantries contain Smucker's products.” Ciraci v. J.M. Smucker Co., 62 F.4th 278, 280 (6th Cir. 2023).

At the onset of COVID-19, Smucker implemented measures to protect its workforce from the virus and to maintain operations during the lockdowns. Smucker required social distancing in its offices and allowed employees to work either remotely or in person. (ECF No. 1., ¶ 20, PageID #3.) As a salaried employee, Ms. Mendoza used both options but spent most of her time working at her office. (Id.) In July 2021, Smucker relaxed its in-office social distancing requirements for employees who showed proof of vaccination. (Id., ¶ 21, PageID #4.) Smucker required its remaining employees, those who were unvaccinated or opted not to disclose their vaccination status to human resources, to work in a “specified area in the office designed for nonvaccinated staff members.” (Id.) Ms. Mendoza was one such employee. (Id., ¶ 24.)

In October 2021, Smucker notified its workers that getting “vaccinated against COVID-19” will be “a condition of their continued employment.” (Id., ¶ 26, PageID #5.) Under this policy, employees could request accommodation for legally protected medical or religious purposes. (Id.; see also id., ¶ 47, PageID #8.) Employees who failed to comply with the policy were subject to termination as of December 16, 2021 and ineligible for severance. (Id., ¶ 27, PageID #5.) That timing roughly coincides with the Emergency Temporary Standard (popularly known as the vaccine mandate) promulgated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 86 Fed.Reg. 61402; 29 C.F.R. § 1910.501(m)(2)(ii), which the Supreme Court ultimately stayed before it took effect, see National Fed'n of Indep. Bus. v. Department of Lab., Occupational Safety & Health Admin., 142 S.Ct. 661, 662 (2022) (per curiam).

B. Ms. Mendoza's Requested Religious Exemption and Termination

Plaintiff Sherry L. Mendoza worked at Smucker for more than 10 years in New Orleans, Louisiana. (ECF No. 1, ¶¶ 17 & 18, PageID #3.) Most recently, Ms. Mendoza held the role of senior manager in process engineering. (Id., ¶ 18.) As a member of The New Orleans Church, Ms. Mendoza identifies as a devout Christian. (Id., ¶ 14.) Her faith prohibits her from “receiving a COVID-19 vaccine derived from aborted fetal stem cell lines.” (Id., ¶ 15.) When Smucker designated an office space for workers who failed to prove their vaccination, Ms. Mendoza “relocate[d] her desk” to that “area of the office.” (Id., ¶ 24, PageID #4.) Ms. Mendoza alleges that relocating her desk revealed to her colleagues her vaccination status, private health information that Smucker had an obligation to keep confidential. (Id.) Nonetheless, Ms. Mendoza “abided by all social distancing requirements and mandates.” (Id., ¶ 20, PageID #3.)

Two days after Smucker announced a vaccine requirement, Ms. Mendoza sought a religious exemption. (Id., ¶ 28, PageID #5.) She submitted a written request explaining that compliance with the vaccine requirement “conflicts with my Godgiven conscience and my unwavering religious beliefs.” (ECF No. 1-3, PageID #20.) Over a month later, human resources personnel held a conference call with Ms. Mendoza regarding her request. (ECF No. 1, ¶ 31, PageID #6.) They posed a series of questions, asking Ms. Mendoza to identify her “religion or religious belief”; explain how her “faith impacts her everyday li[f]e” and how long she “had adhered to her religious belief”; and disclose whether she had “received any prior vaccines” or “a flu shot,” Ms. Mendoza's children had been vaccinated, she “avoided other medications or medicines based on her belief,” or had “ever requested a religious exemption before.” (Id., ¶ 33.) Ms. Mendoza objected and resisted “disclosing her confidential medical history during the interview.” (Id., ¶ 84, PageID #13.)

Smucker presented “the same questions . . . to everyone else submitting religious accommodation requests.” (Id., ¶ 32, PageID #6.) Despite granting religious exemptions to “similarly situated” employees, Smucker denied Ms. Mendoza's request. (Id., ¶¶ 37, 38 & 47, PageID #7 & #8.) Ms. Mendoza suggests that part of the reason for this denial was her “object[ion] to” answering some of the questions. (Id., ¶ 84, PageID #13.) Ms. Mendoza asked Smucker to reconsider, supplementing her request with additional information: a letter from the leader of her church, links to sources of further information, and proposed accommodations commensurate to her religious needs “that would not impose any undue hardship on the company.” (Id., ¶ 39, PageID #7.)

Smucker did not respond. (Id., ¶¶ 40 & 41, PagelD #7-8.) By mid-December 2021, Ms. Mendoza's manager conducted an exit discussion and instructed her to return her work computer, badge, and company credit card. (Id., ¶ 43.) On December 15, 2023, Smucker terminated Ms. Mendoza's employment, though she was told that she could return to work if vaccinated within 30 days. (Id., ¶ 44, PageID #8.) The next day, Ms. Mendoza reported to work and received a formal termination letter. (Id., ¶ 45; ECF No. 1-4, PageID #21.)...
Mendoza v. J.M. Smucker Co. (N.D. Ohio 2023)

Outcome: The Court granted Defendant's motion to dismiss counts one and two to the extent that they asserts claims under Ohio law and Count Three.

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