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State's high court rules Pfizer can't be sued by former employee

A recent New Jersey Supreme Court ruling was called "a dark day for employees" by the plaintiff's attorney. The August ruling addressed the flight attendant's ability to sue her former employer, Pfizer, for religious discrimination rather than the grounds for the suit.

The plaintiff, who worked at the West Trenton aviation facility owned by Pfizer, claims that the pharmaceutical giant fired her three years ago because she refused to get a required yellow fever vaccine. Because it contained ingredients derived from animals, she said her religious beliefs as a Buddhist wouldn't allow her to get the vaccination.

Like many employers, Pfizer has a policy that requires employees to go through arbitration for any disputes rather than file a lawsuit. The company emails employees materials detailing its policy. They are instructed to click on a box acknowledging that they've received the information. The materials state that any employee who doesn't acknowledge receipt but remains with the company for at least 60 days from receipt of the agreement is nonetheless bound by it.

The plaintiff claimed that since she never agreed to the policy, she had the right to sue. Although a lower court sided with the company, an appeals court reversed that decision last year and allowed her to move forward with her suit. Pfizer fought the matter up to the state's high court.

The justices ruled 5-to-1 in Pfizer's favor, with Chief Justice Stuart Rabner dissenting and one justice not participating. One of the justices who voted with the majority nonetheless wrote a separate opinion in which he acknowledged that if "an entire industry or profession inserts in employment and consumer contracts arbitration provisions on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, the public has no real choice. The option of rejecting an arbitration provision and foregoing either a job offer or access to medical services or the opportunity to purchase a car is not a choice."

The plaintiff's attorney said that the court is "holding that employees don't anymore have to agree to arbitrate, which has been the law in New Jersey for four decades."

Regardless of what rights you may have signed away, either actively or passively, in your employment agreements, if you have a discrimination, harassment, wage or another complaint against your current or former employer, it's worthwhile to find out what your legal options are. An experienced attorney can provide information and guidance.

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