Washington State Firefighters Sue to Block King County Vaccine Mandate

Six Washington state firefighters who claim they are entitled to a religious exemption from the state’s COVID vaccine mandate, have filed a class action lawsuit against two King County regional fire organizations, at least 20 municipalities, 19 fire chiefs, and the county medical director.

Ken Hofschulte, Ruslan Cherkasskikh, Ricardo Martinez, Chad Snyder, Alison Hallifax, and Frank Dahlquist filed suit in King County Superior Court alleging religious discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WALD) as well as violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. They are seeking a declaratory judgment holding that the denial of a reasonable accommodation from the vaccine mandate would be “unconstitutional as applied and has a disparate impact on Plaintiffs.”

The complaint lists the names of 63 firefighters from Shoreline, Tukwila, Valley Regional, Bellevue, Redmond, Puget Sound Regional, Bothell, Burien, Eastside, Issaquah, Fall City, Northshore, and Port of Seattle fire departments as being impacted by the mandate. Also named as defendants are King County Fire Chiefs Association and King County Medic One Emergency Medical Services.

The suit alleges that the governor’s vaccine mandate for all government employees expressly allows for an exception for those with sincerely held religious beliefs. It further alleges that each firefighter-plaintiff was initially granted a religious exemption, until the medical director of King County Medic One Emergency Medical Services decided otherwise.

Quoting from the complaint:

  • The class representative’s claims are typical of the Plaintiff Class in that: (1) each Plaintiff holds religious beliefs that will not allow Plaintiff to receive COVID-19 vaccines; (2) the beliefs are sincerely held; (3) each Plaintiff has requested a religious accommodation from Plaintiff’s employer pursuant to WI.AD and Title VII; (4) the request has been approved, but Defendants have stated that no reasonable accommodation can be made without unduly burdening or creating a hardship to Defendants that is more than de minimus.
  • Plaintiffs, and each of them, hold religious convictions that prevent them from taking the CO Due to their sincerely held religious beliefs, the Plaintiffs, and each of them, submitted a request for a religious accommodation pursuant to Title VII and WLAD to their respective employersVID-19 vaccination. Their beliefs are sincere and presumed.
  • The Plaintiff[s’] requests for accommodation included: masking, social distancing when available, testing, and any and all DOH/COC recommendations and internal policies save vaccination.
  • Plaintiffs’ requests for religious exemptions were approved by their employers (Defendants) based on Plaintiffs’ sincerely held religious beliefs.
  • Plaintiffs were told that a ”Dr. Rea” had made the decision not to allow for religious accommodations.
  • Dr. Thomas Rea is the Chief Medical Director of King County Medic One Emergency Medical Services.
  • The notification denying a reasonable accommodation was the only communication given in many instance[s].
  • There were multiple instances where chiefs alluded to: patient risk, insurance claims, negligence claims, expense, and fear of retaliation, but there were no discussions regarding the risk which would pose an undue burden after the implementation of the requested accommodations.
  • No information was provided to the Plaintiffs explaining why the reasonable accommodation of masks, social distancing, and testing could not be used as an accommodation when such accommodations had previously been sufficient.
  • As a result of the denial of the request for a reasonable accommodation under WLAD and Title VII, Plaintiffs have been placed on unpaid leave or separation from their employment beginning October 18, directed to resign, or have been told that unless they submit to a COVID-19 vaccination by a date certain, they will not be allowed on site or able to have patient interaction.
  • Defendant Dr. Rea has stated that no unvaccinated individuals can have patient contact, and KCFCA followed this blanket statement in implementing its outright ban on all faith based individuals from active firefighting duties.
  • The “framework” the departments used in determining whether or not they could allow an exemption resulted in a 100% denial of accommodations requested.”

Here is a copy of the complaint:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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