Employment Law Report
Federal Judge Won’t Enjoin Mandatory Vaccination Policy
By: Michelle D. Wyrick
In Beckerich v. St. Elizabeth Medical Center, No. 21-105-DLB-EBA (E.D. Ky. Sept. 24, 2021), Judge David Bunning refused to enjoin an employer’s mandatory vaccination policy. Under the employer’s vaccination policy, employees were required to get a COVID-19 vaccination unless they submitted a request for an exemption based on medical reasons or because of a sincerely-held religious belief. Employees who did not comply could be terminated.
A group of healthcare workers filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of the employer’s vaccination policy. In their motion for injunctive relief, the plaintiffs focused their challenge on claims under the United States Constitution, the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (“Title VII”). The Court concluded that the plaintiffs were unlikely to succeed in any of their constitutional or statutory challenges and denied the motion.
The plaintiffs argued that the vaccination policy infringed on their constitutional rights and failed to provide medical accommodations required by the ADA or religious exemptions required under Title VII. The Court concluded that the plaintiffs had “zero likelihood of success on the merits” on their constitutional claims because the employer was a private hospital, not a state actor subject to Fourteenth Amendment scrutiny.
The Court found that the plaintiffs were unlikely to succeed on their ADA claims because the employer accommodated needs for medical exemptions and had, in fact, granted exemptions or deferments to 75 percent of the applicants. Similarly, the Court dismissed the plaintiffs’ chances of success on their Title VII claims because the employer had a process in place for granting religious exemptions and had already granted 11 of the 40 plaintiffs a religious exemption.
When discussing the public interest prong of the preliminary injunction test, the Court cited Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905), a decision upholding a state-imposed smallpox vaccination upon penalty of imprisonment. The Court reasoned that the employer’s policy was “well within the confines of the law” and that it “appropriately balance[d] the public interests with individual liberties.” “[I]f legislative action to prevent the spread of contagious diseases must be upheld, even in spite of doubt – and in spite of individual liberties – then private action must be upheld, too.” “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.”
Although the Beckerich decision was issued in the context of a motion for a preliminary injunction, the opinion strongly suggests that the employer’s mandatory vaccination policy will survive a challenge on the merits. As long as employers allow appropriate exemptions for medical and religious reasons, mandatory vaccination policies are likely to be upheld.