Judge who fired employee for not getting vaccinated did not abuse power - ruling

  • Bankruptcy court employee claimed religious beliefs infringed by vaccine mandate
  • New Jersey and Delaware federal courts require employees get vaccinated

(Reuters) - A bankruptcy judge who fired an employee who was denied a religious exemption from a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination requirement did not engage in discrimination or an abuse of power, a federal appeals court judge ruled.

Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Michael Chagares in a newly released opinion dismissed a complaint the ex-employee filed with the Judicial Council of the 3rd Circuit in a rare judicial misconduct case over a federal court employee vaccine requirement.

The decision is dated Feb. 22 but was only released this week. As is typical with cases filed under the Judicial Conduct and Disability Act, the ruling did not identify the complainant, judge or even court to which it pertains.

The federal district and bankruptcy courts in Delaware and New Jersey, which are both in the 3rd Circuit, are among those within the broader federal judiciary that have mandated court staff get vaccinated.

The ex-employee accused the unnamed bankruptcy judge of discriminating against her based on her religious beliefs by terminating her after her application for a religious exemption from a court vaccine policy was denied.

She alleged her religious beliefs prevented her from getting vaccinated and that she had "natural immunity" to the coronavirus. She argued her beliefs could be accommodated and that she should be entitled to be reinstated.

But in a seven-page decision, Chagares said the ex-employee was essentially seeking to collaterally attack the judge's decisions to terminate her and not grant a religious accommodation, something she could not do in a misconduct case.

Even if the bankruptcy's judge's decisions were subject to review, Chagares said it was clear that her firing did not constitute intentional discrimination on the basis of religion under the Judicial Conduct and Disability Act.

The judge's decision was based on the undue hardship the court would face to accommodate her belief, Chagares wrote.

"Although Complainant may disagree with the policy and the decision not to grant her a religious exemption, the Subject Judge’s decision to terminate Complainant in compliance with a Court policy applicable to all employees is not an 'abuse of power' rising to the level of judicial misconduct," he wrote.

The employee had 42 days after the Feb. 22 decision to appeal it to the full Judicial Council. It was unclear if she did.

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Nate Raymond reports on the federal judiciary and litigation. He can be reached at nate.raymond@thomsonreuters.com.