Mount Nittany OB nurse sues over vaccination

A registered nurse at Mount Nittany Medical Center has filed a federal civil rights suit claiming she lost her job in the obstetrics and gynecology group because she refused to be vaccinated due to religious beliefs.

Rebecca Smith, of Alexandria, filed suit Wednesday in U.S. Middle District Court against Mount Nittany Medical Center Health Services Inc. and Mount Nittany Health System seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

Smith returned to work in February, but according to the court complaint, she may not work around babies due to her lack of vaccination for tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis.

She claims while on family leave in March 2015 due to the birth of a child, she received an email that her vaccinations were past due. She contends those shots had never been required since she was hired in 2011.

When she returned to work March 21, 2015, Smith said she informed an employee health assistant she wanted to opt out of the shots for religious reasons.

The response was if she did not have the shots by April 7, 2015, she would be removed from the schedule, the suit states.

Smith said she was removed from the schedule and in May 2015 filed a grievance claiming she was placed out of work involuntarily because of her religious beliefs.

At the request of Gerald P. Dittman, vice president of human resources, Smith said in July she explained in detail her concerns about the shots and how they conflicted with her religious beliefs.

She said she was terminated in July and a month later filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In November, according to the complaint, Dittman sent her a letter apologizing for not responding quicker to her July explanation and made an offer to accommodate her religious beliefs. His letter stated in part:

“The medical center will not require you to get the TDAP vaccination in order to continue working at the medical center.

“However, because of the undeveloped state of the immune systems of infants who are present in the OB/GYN Department of the medical center, and the consequent risk of infection and possible death from exposure to an employee who has not been vaccinated, we cannot allow you to continue to work in the OB/GYN Department.”

The letter continued that Smith could work in another department on the condition she wear a surgical mask when within 6 feet of a patient.

Smith said she accepted the offer and returned to work in February after being out of work for approximately eight months.

She contends there was no attempt to make an accommodation for her until after she filled her EEOC complaint.

Damages Smith is seeking include back pay, benefits and any salary increases or promotions to which she would have been entitled if not fired.

“At Mount Nittany Health, our mission is to make people healthier and to implement reasonable precautions to protect our patients, employees and visitors from infectious diseases. As with any pending legal matter, we are not able to provide further comment,” said MNMC Manager of Marketing and Communications Lee Ann Tripp in a statement.