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gavel next to vials of coronavirus vaccine with usa flag back drop

Lawsuits Filed By Employees Over COVID Vaccines

Legal battles over the COVID-19 vaccine and employee rights have become nearly as infectious as the disease itself, as lawsuits against vaccination mandates are popping up all over the country.

A recent case filed by more than 100 healthcare workers at Houston Methodist Hospital, which claimed their rights were being violated by the inoculation requirement as a condition of employment, was dismissed by a U.S. District judge on June 12. Unvaccinated staff members of the hospital represent just one percent of its employees.

The employees were suspended without pay, a common precursor to termination because they refused to get the vaccine. Those who remained unvaccinated after the hospital’s June 7 deadline were fired. Jennifer Bridges, the lead plaintiff, alleged that she was made into a “human guinea pig” because the vaccines are currently under emergency use authorization (EAU), not fully approved status, by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The Houston suit even alleged that the mandate is a violation of the Nuremberg Code, which originated during the Holocaust and outlaws forced medical experimentation.  

Judge Lynn Hughes explained his rejection by saying that the mandate is “not coercion … The public’s interest in having a hospital capable of caring for patients during a pandemic far outweighs protecting the vaccination preferences.” 

Hughes’ five-page decision, which also said that EUA does not affect the responsibilities private employers have to their staff, is the first significant ruling about COVID-19 vaccine mandates. It cited precedence from a 1905 U.S. Supreme Court case ruling that the town of Cambridge, Massachusetts had the right to fine anyone refusing a smallpox vaccination. 

Most healthcare facilities initially planned to wait until full approval before issuing a mandate but reversed that decision. The only exceptions granted are for those with medical or religious reasons to decline the vaccine, in accordance with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Several states have tried to fight back against vaccine mandates by passing limitation measures, despite the fact that the EEOC allows employers to enforce it. But in all but one of those states, Tennessee, even the new laws exclude health workers from the limitation.

Plaintiffs in these cases make up a very small minority in their profession. This month, a survey by the American Medical Association found that 96 percent of physicians are vaccinated. An American Nurses Association survey back in January showed that 70 percent of nurses had already been at least half-vaccinated. Inoculations for other infectious diseases like the flu or measles have long been a standard healthcare industry requirement. Supporters of the mandate say that healthcare workers are ethically obligated to their patients to get the vaccine. 

Other Professions Fighting COVID Vaccine Mandates

A former North Carolina deputy sued his sheriff for wrongful determination due to what he claims was his refusal to comply with a mandate. That suit argued that the vaccination mandate violated federal law. The plaintiff, Christopher Neve, was the sole member of the department to refuse the vaccine without an acceptable religious or medical reason. 

A grassroots group called the California Educators for Medical Freedom brought litigation in March against the Los Angeles Unified School District for its alleged vaccine requirement, applicable to all district employees. But a district representative publicly stated the vaccine was not yet required. Thousands of U.S. schools have asked their staff to get vaccinated, partially because children under 12 cannot be vaccinated yet. 

Still, other mandate battles include a former detention officer in New Mexico who was demoted for his refusal to get the vaccine, then resigned after filing suit. There was a petition signed by over 11,000 employees of Indiana Univerity Health for their freedom to decline.

Numerous similar lawsuits are being pursued around the U.S., and legal experts predict that number will keep climbing until the vaccine receives full approval. Manufacturers Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson have all filed for full approval and expect it to be granted this fall or winter. Full approval would make most of these cases obsolete.