A federal judge in Houston, Texas ruled on June 12, 2021 that Houston Methodist Hospital (the “hospital”) did not violate the law by requiring, as a matter of policy, that all employees be vaccinated against COVID-19 by June 7, 2021.
In so ruling, the Court considered and rejected several arguments from a group of 117 hospital employees who advanced several arguments that the Court decisively rejected.
- The employees argued that the COVID-19 vaccines currently available “are experimental and dangerous.” The Court rejected this claim as “false” and “irrelevant”, explaining that “[v]accine safety and efficacy are not considered in adjudicating this issue” because the relevant provision of Texas law only protects employees for “refusing to commit an act carrying criminal penalties to the worker.” The Court explained that “[r]eceiving a COVID-19 vaccine is not an illegal act” but rather is an inoculation that, “in the hospital’s judgment, will make it safer for their workers and the patients in [its] care.”
- The employees argued that the injection requirement violated public policy. The Court disagreed, explaining that “Texas does not recognize this exception to at-will employment.” The Court went further, stating that even if it did, “the injection requirement is consistent with public policy.” The Court also noted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s guidance that, while “not binding” on the Court, provides that “employers can require employees be vaccinated against COVID-19 subject to reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities or sincerely held religious beliefs that preclude vaccination.”
- The employees argued that people cannot be required to receive “unapproved” medicines and that “no currently-available vaccines have been fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration.” The Court rejected this argument, noting that the provisions of federal law authorizing the Secretary of Health and Human Services to roll out medical products for use in an emergency “does not confer a private opportunity to sue the government, employer or worker.”
- The Court emphatically rejected the employees’ claim that receipt of a COVID-19 vaccine makes them “human subjects”, as no currently available vaccine has been fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration.” The Court responded that this claim is factually false: “The hospital has not applied to test COVID-19 vaccines on its employees, it has not been approved by an institutional review board, and it has not been certified to proceed with clinical trials.”
- The Court also rejected Plaintiffs’ claim that requiring them to receiving a vaccine “violates the Nuremberg Code” and is akin to “forced medical experimentation during the Holocaust.” The Court explained: “Equating the injection requirement to medical experimentation in concentration camps is reprehensible. Nazi doctors conducted medical experiments on victims that caused pain, mutilation, permanent disability, and in many cases, death.”
- Finally, the Court rejected the employees’ argument that the hospital’s policy was “coercion.” The Court explained: “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. Bridges [one of the employees] can freely choose to accept or refuse a COVID-19 vaccine; however, if she refuses, she will simply need to work somewhere else.”
According to news reports, the employees intend to appeal the Court’s decision.
This case has generated national press coverage as the first federal court decision addressing whether an employer may require its employees to be vaccinated as a condition of employment. Employers will want to follow the decision of the court of appeals if the employees do appeal the ruling. On or about June 22, 2021, approximately 153 hospital employees resigned or were fired, according to news reports. Employers should be aware of the nature of the hospital’s business—providing health care to sick people—and consider whether different facts could lead a different court to reach a different ruling. While the Court did reference the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s guidance as support for upholding the hospital’s policy, it also stated that the Court was not bound by it, suggesting that a future judge might freely disagree with it.