Vaccine Mandates Pass Legal Muster in First Federal Decision
Controversial vaccine mandates got a lift on June 12, when a Texas federal District Court dismissed a case challenging a hospital’s mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy for employees, the first court opinion addressing employer mandates.
Nurse Jennifer Bridges and 116 other employees brought the lawsuit after Houston Methodist Hospital established a policy that compelled employees to obtain a COVID-19 vaccine. The complaint alleged wrongful termination and violation of public policy. It also charged that the hospital’s policy “requires the employee to subject themselves to medical experimentation as a prerequisite to feeding their families,” likening them to “guinea pigs.”
To protect its patients, the hospital issued the policy on April 1, with implementation planned to occur over two phases, the first involving the vaccination of management and newly hired employees. In the second phase, all other employees were required to either get the vaccine or submit documentation for an exemption based on a medical condition (such as pregnancy) or religious belief.
By the end of the first phase, all executives, managers and newly hired employees had been vaccinated. The hospital president then sent a statement to the rest of the employees, giving them until June 7 to receive the vaccine. According to the letter, noncompliance would result in immediate unpaid suspension for 14 days and termination if the employee did not become immunized during that period. Two weeks later, the hospital suspended 178 workers for failing to get fully vaccinated, and 117 of those individuals filed a lawsuit. At the time of the court filing, 24,947 of the hospital’s 26,000 employees had already received the vaccine.
In response, the hospital made a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, and the U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes concurred, noting that although the plaintiffs argued that the currently available COVID-19 vaccines are experimental and dangerous, “This claim is false, and is also irrelevant.” He also pointed out that Texas law only protects employees from being terminated for refusing to commit an act carrying criminal penalties to the worker. “Receiving a COVID-19 vaccination is not an illegal act, and it carries no criminal penalties,” wrote the judge, who went on to say that the employees are refusing to accept inoculation that “in the hospital’s judgment, will make it safer for their workers and the patients.”
According to Judge Hughes, being given a choice of a vaccine or being fired is not coercion.
“Methodist is trying to do their business of saving lives without giving them the COVID-19 virus. It is a choice made to keep staff, patients, and their families safer,” he wrote. “Plaintiffs can freely choose to accept or refuse a COVID-19 vaccine; however, if they refuse, they will need to work elsewhere.”
The decision is notable because it rejects the argument that has been advanced in other cases challenging mandatory vaccination policies in the employment context and sets a precedent that an employer can mandate a vaccination policy for employees. As with other employment policies, workers can choose to comply or accept the consequences.
At the end of May, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released a statement addressing the issue, saying that employers have the right to require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, subject to reasonable accommodations for those with disabilities or religious beliefs that prohibit vaccination. Although the statement is not binding, it is likely an accurate indication of the law’s opinion of COVID-19 vaccination mandates. According to JD Supra, several major hospitals throughout the U.S. have instituted similar policies since the ruling. On June 14, the Texas plaintiffs appealed their case to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.