On June 12, 2021, a federal judge ruled for the first time that an employer (a hospital) can mandate vaccines and terminate employees who do not get vaccinated absent an approved accommodation. A Texas judge dismissed Bridges et al., v. Houston Methodist Hospital et al., a lawsuit challenging a hospital’s requirement that employees be vaccinated against COVID-19 by June 7, 2021. Hospital employees sued in late May 2021, arguing COVID-19 vaccines were experimental and dangerous and, thus, a vaccine mandate violated public policy.
While Texas law protects employees from being terminated for refusing to commit an act carrying criminal penalties, these plaintiffs failed to identify an illegal act they allegedly refused to perform. Instead, the more-than-one-hundred employees who joined the lawsuit stated only that they refuse to be a “human guinea pig.” The employees argued that the vaccines were “unapproved” and the hospital is forcing its employees to be “human subjects” in their vaccine trial, which they believe violates public policy.
The Court dismissed the employees’ claims in their entirety, citing Supreme Court precedent on handling contagious diseases and explaining that emergency federal approval means that these vaccines are not “unapproved.”
The Court also was not hesitant to reject Plaintiffs’ extreme rhetoric, which included likening the threat of termination under the hospital’s policy to forced medical experimentation during the Holocaust, which the Court characterized as “reprehensible.” As the Court found, an employer imposing a vaccine mandate is not “coercing” employees to get the vaccine. Employees are free to work elsewhere if they do not wish to comply with their employer’s policies, including a vaccine mandate, and “employment [inherently] includes limits on the worker’s behavior in exchange for his remuneration. That is all part of the bargain.”
This is the first federal opinion upholding the EEOC’s recent guidance, which advised that employers can mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for employees, subject to the need for disability or religious accommodations, and is a great reminder that employers navigating questions related to the pandemic are well-advised to keep apprised of current government guidance and judicial decisions. Stay tuned, as this case is undoubtedly destined for an appeal to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.