Former TIAA employees sue over termination and denial of religious exemption to COVID vaccine mandates

Source: Ivan Radic, Creative Commons

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  • “It’s changed my life and my career permanently,” said plaintiff Noelle Sproul. She said the company had a hardline stance toward employees who expressed skepticism about the vaccine.

Former employees of the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America are suing their former employer over being terminated from their jobs after failing to comply with the company’s COVID-era vaccine mandate.

The plaintiffs have filed suit against TIAA, a financial retirement service company with locations North Carolina, alleging violation of the 1964 Civil Right Act among other complaints.

Noelle Sproul: “God’s on my side.”

Plaintiff Noelle Sproul worked as an attorney in TIAA’s legal department for several years before being terminated on May 2, 2022. She was also appointed as a managing director in the legal department of Nuveen LLC, a subsidiary of TIAA.

Causes of action in the complaint, titled Noelle H. Sproul v. Keith Frederick Atkinson, Ned Godwin, Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America, Nuveen, LLC, and Nuveen Services, LLC, include intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, wrongful discharge in violation of civil rights, conspiracy to deprive plaintiff of her civil rights, and violations of North Carolina public policy.

TIAA issued a mandate in 2021 for all employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19. In the months subsequent to the mandate, Sproul submitted exemptions for both medical disability and for an exemption on the grounds of religious accommodation pursuant to TIAA policy. Appeals of the exemptions were later denied.

In an interview with Carolina Journal, Sproul said the denial of her exemptions and appeals had a profound impact on her life and career.

“It’s changed my life and my career permanently,” she said. “Just recently it was the second anniversary of my termination which was May 2nd. We filed in January 2023. On May 2nd 2023, the judge, with God’s perfect timing, denied opposing counsel’s motion to remove and remanded the case to state court and also denied their motions for dismissal. And then this January, the state court judge also denied their partial motion to dismiss. All of that was good news and that has been encouragement and helped me to know that God’s on my side.”

Sproul also said the company had a hardline stance toward employees who expressed skepticism about the vaccine.

“The atmosphere at the company was such that dissent on this issue was not allowed,” Sproul said. “I told my family, months before the mandate was officially announced, that the mandate was coming and that I would be terminated because again, it was clear that they wanted everyone there vaccinated and they were very clear throughout that there would be very few exemptions granted.”

She also took issue with how the company conducts itself concerning policies on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“This has been an incredibly painful process,” said Sproul. “TIAA is a company that speaks a lot about diversity, equity, and inclusion. They pride themselves on being ethical and inclusive. To me, the first chance they had an opportunity to not exclude, they actively and openly excluded, in my mind, in violation of many of their corporate policies. That was incredibly painful for me to see, feel, and experience. Maybe people’s views are changing now, but it’s been an incredibly lonely and painful place to be. I’m in this place because God made it very clear to me that his natural immunity is sufficient.”

More plaintiffs come forward

Another plaintiff who requested anonymity filed a lawsuit in federal court similar to Sproul’s, alleging violation of the 1964 Civil Right Act’s Title VII and other violations of North Carolina law. Plaintiff was an employee of TIAA for two and a half years before being terminated. He told CJ he had spent several days writing his religious accommodation exemption with the hope the company would grant it based on his sincerely held Christian beliefs.

“I spent three days writing my religious exemption request because I’m a very strong Christian and the mandate, for many reasons, went against my beliefs,” he said. “I outlined four different ways in which I was against taking the vaccine. I submitted the exemption to the company and didn’t hear back from them for a while. Then on December 31st, I received an email from their legal department basically communicating the message, hey, we read your religious exemption request and decided to deny it. You’ll either have to take the vaccine by March of 2022 or you’re out. I was never going to get it so I went through my line of higher ups and tried to find out if I could appeal the denial because I was never given an interview and no one sat down to talk to me about my religious exemption request. They just flat out denied it.”

The plaintiff also stated that one of the main drivers behind his lawsuit was the money TIAA took from him in accrued benefits.

“One of the main bases for my case is that I was two and a half years into working there,” said plaintiff. “To be vested with all of the 401k matches and pension plans, you have to be there for three years. So, shortly after I left, they clawed back all of that accrued money. I had every intention of continuing to work there. I had great employment reviews. They were only letting me go because of the vaccine and they took back all of the money for that reason.”

Despite the financial setbacks, Plaintiff stressed the importance of faith in the face of adversity.

“Your faith has to come first, even if it costs you,” he said. “I knew from the time they said there was going to be a vaccine mandate that there was no way I was going to do it. I was willing to stand up for my faith no matter what because standing for what God tells us in his word is more important than any job.”

“When COVID happened, people’s rights were trampled on”

Charlotte-based attorney Yale Haymond serves as counsel for the plaintiffs in both lawsuits. He told CJ it’s important for people to protect their religious freedom.

“The biggest thing here is that when COVID happened, people’s rights were trampled on,” he said. “Specifically, religious freedom was attacked through employers forcing vaccine mandates on people who have sincerely held religious beliefs, beliefs which were telling them not to get vaccinated. I think that’s really the biggest takeaway.”

Suing large corporations is no small feat either, and according to Haymond, there are not many attorneys who would be willing to take on cases of this magnitude.

“It’s been a real battle,” he added. “It’s very complicated to take on big corporations. They have a lot of manpower and high-powered firms, so it’s an uphill battle and I think a lot of people were deterred from taking on big companies. I’m willing to take a case any time when it comes to defending religious liberty. It’s nice to be able to merge my convictions with my professional practice.”

Defendants in both lawsuits filed an answer to the complaints, denying the allegations.  Attorneys for the defendants could not be reached in time for publication.

Plaintiffs are seeking a jury trial, compensatory, and punitive damages among other remedies stemming from the alleged conduct of the defendants.