San Diego, CA — During the pandemic, nurse Keitha Giannella courageously volunteered to return to work in Sharp Grossmont Hospital’s surgical intensive care unit (SICU) to serve patients who were sick and dying from COVID-19. Ms. Giannella is one of Sharp’s best employees and is a true healthcare hero. In fact, in 2019, just before the pandemic’s inception, Keitha Giannella was awarded the Sharp SICU Nurse of the Year, Nursing Excellence Award.
However, on March 1, 2022, Sharp Healthcare demonstrated the very opposite of appreciation for her selfless service to the community when it unlawfully placed her on an unpaid leave of absence, threatening to terminate her within 30 days. Why? Simply because she is a Christian desiring to consistently live out her faith at work, in this case requesting a reasonable religious accommodation exemption from the COVID-19 vaccine booster shots. But rather than appropriately honoring the well-established American legal traditions of fostering religious diversity by being inclusive and tolerant of people of faith, Sharp concocted an unlawful scheme to brazenly deny Ms. Giannella and dozens of other healthcare heroes their legal right to reasonable religious accommodations at work.
Sharp’s decisions and actions blatantly violate both federal law (Title VII) and state law (Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA)). In fact, Sharp is legally required to accommodate its employees’ religious beliefs and practices unless, after engaging in an interactive process to explore any available reasonable alternative means of accommodating religion, the employer determines the employee cannot be accommodated without subjecting the company to an undue hardship (a significant burden or expense). As a person of faith, Ms. Giannella has deeply held religious objections to the vaccine boosters. Significantly, she only discovered the vaccines were developed using fetal cell lines originating from aborted babies after she was given the two initial Pfizer vaccine shots.
Yet, after being made aware of her bona fide religious conflict with the workplace vaccine mandate, Sharp made no effort to reasonably accommodate her religious beliefs, but rather engaged in an intentional campaign of discrimination against her Christian faith and the faith of dozens of other Sharp employees. Specifically, Sharp failed to engage in any interactive process whatsoever to explore reasonable accommodation options for Ms. Giannella. If it had, Sharp would have confirmed that she could been easily accommodated by requiring precautionary measures including wearing a mask and regular testing, precisely those very same alternative measures allowed by Sharp to accommodate other employees (including those with medical exemptions). Furthermore, Sharp failed to explain that it would somehow suffer any undue hardship if it accommodated Ms. Giannella. The truth is that Sharp would not have suffered any undue hardship whatsoever if it accommodated Ms. Giannella’s religion. Sharp has no legal defenses for what it did. Rather, contrary to meeting its legal obligations, Sharp’s Religious Exemption Review Committee (SRERC) merely issued terse religious exemption denials and provided no explanations whatsoever for its arbitrary and unlawful decisions. Sharp then proceeded to retaliate against Keitha Giannella for merely consistently living out her faith at work, leaving her to languish in the purgatory of unpaid administrative leave now for more than five months.
“Sharp must realize that employee civil rights are not suspended by a virus,” stated Dean R. Broyles, counsel for Ms. Giannella. “Even during a pandemic, corporations must comply with the law. Sharp has no excuse for mistreating one of its best nurses like a pariah because of her religious faith. Sadly, Ms. Giannella is not the only Sharp employee the company has treated so deplorably. We have reason to believe that Sharp may have refused to accommodate dozens if not hundreds of similarly situated religious employees regarding the vaccine boosters.” Broyles continued, “Rather than appropriately honoring and respecting religious employees’ rights, Sharp decided to engage in a callous campaign of corporate bullying, issuing threats and targeting some of its best employees followed by recriminations. Sharp must be held accountable for its lawless attitude and actions. Ignorance of the law is no excuse. Sharp cannot place the blame for its own malfeasance on the urgencies of the COVID-19 pandemic or on the state of California. In fact, California explicitly acknowledged the validity of religious exemptions to its vaccine and booster mandates. Sharp only has itself to blame. The committed and faithful employees of Sharp deserve much better.”
Keitha Giannella is represented by Dean R. Broyles, Esq. of the National Center for Law & Policy and David E. Hallett, Esq. of Buscemi Hallett, LLP. The civil rights lawsuit charges Sharp and Grossmont with Religious Discrimination—Failure to Accommodate; Disparate Treatment; Harassment; Retaliation; Failure to Prevent Discrimination and Harassment; and, Wrongful Termination in Violation of Public Policy. You can read the Giannella v. Sharp Healthcare complaint filed yesterday here.
The National Center for Law & Policy is a non-profit 501(c)(3) legal defense organization dedicated to the protection and promotion of religious freedom, the affirmation of life, parental rights, and other civil liberties. Please visit our website at www.nclplaw.org.
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