In one of the first cases involving a request for an injunction against a private employer's vaccine mandate, a federal court refused to put a stop to the employer's mandatory vaccination policy.
After St. Elizabeth Medical Center established a policy requiring its employees to either receive a COVID-19 vaccine or submit an exemption request for a medical reason or religious belief—or face termination—a group of health care workers filed suit.
They argued that the vaccination policy infringed on their constitutional rights and that St. Elizabeth had not approved religious and medical accommodations to the vaccination policy in accord with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Title VII. The workers asked the court for a temporary restraining order and/or preliminary injunction.
U.S. District Judge David L. Bunning denied the motion.
None of the employees' constitutional claims were applicable against St. Elizabeth, he explained, because the employer was a private, nongovernment actor.
"Put simply, without establishing that defendants are state actors, plaintiffs' constitutional claims cannot stand, and thus have zero likelihood of success on the merits," he wrote.
Nor could the employees establish a strong likelihood of success on the merits with respect to their claims under the ADA and Title VII, Bunning said.
St. Elizabeth provided evidence of medical exemptions requested pursuant to the vaccination policy, demonstrating that of the 232 requests submitted, 31 were granted, 143 were deferred, 34 were denied and 24 were pending.
"Defendants have granted more medical accommodations than there are plaintiffs in this case," the court noted, and none of the plaintiffs had suffered an adverse employment decision because of a disability, as two had already received medical exemptions.
"The complete lack of adverse employment effects suffered by plaintiffs inhibits their ability to establish a prima facie case under the ADA. In the absence of the claim's prima facie elements, their ADA claim has very little likelihood of success, and accordingly, plaintiffs have not shown a strong likelihood of success on the merits with respect to their ADA claim."
Similar statistics were presented with regard to religious exemptions, with 425 of the 739 requests already granted by St. Elizabeth's, leading to a similar finding of little likelihood of success for the plaintiffs.
Bunning also found that the plaintiffs were unable to demonstrate irreparable harm. The loss of employment is not irreparable harm because it is fully compensable by monetary damages, he said, and no plaintiffs were being forcibly vaccinated.
The court also took issue with the question of substantial harm to others and public interest factors, characterizing the position of the employees as believing that their individual liberties were more important than the public good.
"Specifically, plaintiffs believe that their individual liberties include a right to be employed by a private hospital, and without that employment being conditioned upon their receiving of a COVID-19 vaccine," Bunning wrote.
But St. Elizabeth's also has a right to set conditions of employment, and as a private employer, the vaccination "policy is well within the confines of the law, and it appropriately balances the public interests with individual liberties," he said.
"[T]o work at St. Elizabeth's, plaintiffs agree to wear a certain uniform, to arrive at work at a certain time, to leave work at a certain time, to park their vehicle in a certain spot, to sit at a certain desk and to work on certain tasks," the court wrote. "They also agree to receive an influenza vaccine, which defendants have required of their employees for the past five years. These are all conditions of employment, and 'every employment includes limits on the worker's behavior in exchange for his remuneration.' If an employee believes his or her individual liberties are more important than legally permissible conditions on his or her employment, that employee can and should choose to exercise another individual liberty, no less significant—the right to seek other employment."
The court denied the employees' motion for a temporary restraining order and/or preliminary injunction.
To read the memorandum order in Beckerich v. St. Elizabeth Medical Center, click here.
Why it matters: The decision provides a road map for employers considering the use of a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy, from the arguments by employees opposed to the policy to the court's considerations of irreparable harm and public interest factors.
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