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ABC to Face Trial Over ‘General Hospital’ Firings Tied to COVID-19 Vaccine Mandates

ABC must face religious discrimination claims from two former General Hospital crewmembers who sued the network after they were fired for refusing the COVID-19 vaccination, marking one of the first rulings to clear the way for trial over terminations caused by blanket vaccine mandates widely imposed by studios amid the pandemic.

A Los Angeles judge, in an order issued Tuesday, found that James and Timothy Wahl may have had “sincerely held” religious beliefs that ABC should have accommodated by affording them exemptions and allowing them to follow safety protocols implemented before mandatory vaccination policies were rolled out.

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The ruling comes on the heels of ABC defeating a similar lawsuit from Ingo Rademacher over his dismissal from General Hospital for refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Unlike with crewmembers who were not in close, unmasked contact with others, the court found in that case that it was impossible for unvaccinated actors to safely work on set during the pandemic due to the nature of their work.

ABC was among several studios that in the summer of 2021 carried out vaccine mandates, which were agreed upon by Hollywood’s guilds and studios. The return-to-work protocols stated that vaccines could be required for those working in “Zone A” of a production — typically a project’s main actors, as well as key crewmembers who work closely with them in the highest-risk areas of the set.

In 2022, father and son James and Timothy Wahl, both of whom worked in the special effects department for the show, sued ABC after their requests for religious exemptions were denied. The rejections were based on ABC’s uncertainty as to whether their objections to taking the vaccine were based on their Christian faith.

ABC argued that the Wahls did not have genuine religious beliefs and that, even if they did, it could not have accommodated them without undue hardship. It also claimed that IATSE waived any rights members had to object to mandatory vaccination policies.

Ruling against ABC on summary judgment, the court concluded that the studio may have discriminated against the Wahls on the basis of their religion by failing to find a workaround for their refusal to get vaccinated.

On this issue, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Stephen Goorvitch sided with ABC in the suit from Rademacher. He pointed to the actor’s refusal to cooperate with Disney officials in the process of probing whether he should be exempted from vaccine mandates as a follower of a book called The Revelation of Ramala.

Unlike in that case, the court found a jury should decide whether the Wahls were “genuine in their beliefs.”

In a deposition, Disney ABC TV Group vp production Dominick Nuzzi testified that he became involved in the accommodation process once a request was accepted and that he participated in discussions of whether to grant an exemption to one of the Wahls but ultimately decided against it.

“This testimony suggests that Defendant may have initially believed one of the plaintiffs, which supports both cases: Plaintiffs are father and son, and there is sufficient evidence in the record that they share the same belief system,” the order stated.

The court also found that ABC could have afforded the Wahls accommodations without undue financial or logistical hardship.

In the suit from Rademacher, Goorvitch concluded such workarounds for the actor are not possible because he interacted with other performers onstage, requiring him to come into close proximity to them without a mask, which endangered their safety.

“This decision is consistent with other cases in which courts have found that actors cannot be accommodated with pre-vaccine protocols because the nature of their work requires close, unmasked contact with other performers,” the judge wrote in the order.

By contrast, the Wahls largely worked behind the scenes, running the construction and special effects shops for the show. While they periodically had to go to “Zone A” of the production, where the principal cast was filming, they tested regularly for COVID-19, always wore a mask and did their best to socially distance from the cast, they attested.

A reasonable accommodation, the court said, could have been allowing the Wahls to follow safety protocols that were in effect from July 2020 to the fall of 2021, before vaccine mandates were instituted. During this time, the General Hospital production did not have an outbreak of the virus, lawyers for the crewmembers claimed.

“The Court’s ‘hands are tied,’ as they say,” the order stated. “There are enough disputed facts that the jury, not the judge, must decide whether Plaintiffs could have been accommodated without an undue hardship to Defendant.”

In a win for ABC, the court also found that ABC does not have to face a claim for invasion of privacy. Last year, the Wahls dropped claims for disability discrimination, retaliation and wrongful termination.

ABC did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In another suit from an actor challenging his termination after being refused a vaccine exemption, a federal judge dismissed some claims from Rockmond Dunbar. U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee ruled that producers Disney and 20th Television did not have to face a disparate impact claim, which accused them of advancing a vaccination policy discriminating against followers of the Church of Universal Wisdom. They still face several other claims.

One consistency across lawsuits against Disney and its affiliates has been the way the company is portrayed as handling requests for religious exemptions. It appears that the interviews vetting the requests are conducted by Disney lawyers, who look into the backgrounds of the individuals who are requesting exemptions. Dunbar’s religious exemption was denied because he had previously received tattoos and ear piercings in violation of his beliefs as a member of the Church of Universal Wisdom. Rademacher’s exemption was denied, in part, on his religion lacking any of the formal signs of religious institutions and ABC’s belief that his opposition to getting the vaccine was “rooted in health or efficacy concerns” rather than his faith, according to court filings in the case.

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