Federal Court Rejects Legal Challenges to Mandatory Vaccination Policies

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A federal court recently issued a ruling in one of the first lawsuits in South Carolina challenging mandatory vaccinations. In Bauer v. Summey, employees of the City of North Charleston, the City of Charleston, and the St. James Fire District challenged their employers’ mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policies, and sought a preliminary injunction suspending enforcement of the policies during the lawsuit. The court denied their motion for an injunction and left the vaccination requirements in place. The case highlights some of the legal challenges courts and workplaces continue to encounter regarding mandatory vaccinations. 

More than a hundred years earlier, a Lutheran pastor opposed a Massachusetts state law pursuant to which the City of Cambridge imposed mandatory vaccination requirements on its residents, leading to a lawsuit ultimately decided by the United States Supreme Court in Jacobson v. Massachusetts. A foundation of Jacobson’s argument was his assertion of “the inherent right of every freeman to care for his own body and health in such a way as to him seems best.” The Jacobson Court rejected that argument and upheld mandatory vaccinations against smallpox. The Bauer lawsuit in federal court in South Carolina involves analogous arguments, and so far has met with the same result as Jacobson

In Bauer, the employers published and implemented policies mandating COVID-19 vaccination for all employees.  The policies permitted exemptions for sincerely held religious beliefs, as required under Title VII, and based on disability, as required by the ADA. In opposing the mandates, the employees brought constitutional claims, alleging that the policies violated their due process rights (procedural and substantive), as well as their First Amendment rights to free exercise and equal protection under the laws.  Further, also challenging the policies under South Carolina state and common law, the employees claimed violations of South Carolina’s wrongful termination in violation of public policy doctrine, as well as a violation of South Carolina’s “Home Rule Act” and right to privacy.  In denying the employees’ motion for a preliminary injunction, the court rejected each of these arguments. 

As to the constitutional due process issues raised by the employees, the court held that the employers’ processes for implementing the policies were not defective, and the employees received all the process to which they were entitled when the vaccination rules—which applied to all employees—were implemented and published to them.  The court similarly denied the employees’ First Amendment free exercise and free speech claims.

The employees further argued that they should not be terminated or face discipline for failure to comply with the mandates based on South Carolina’s exception to the State’s “at-will” employment doctrine, which prohibits discharge of an employee in contravention of South Carolina “public policy” and considers such “wrongful discharge.”  This type of challenge would apply to employers in both the public and private sectors. 

More specifically, they asserted that termination based on failure to comply with the vaccine mandates (and failure by the employer defendants to grant an “administrative exemption” sought by many of the plaintiffs) constituted wrongful termination in contravention of South Carolina public policy because it effectively amounted to termination based on the employees’ political beliefs and other constitutional rights to Free Speech and other avenues of expression.  

The court found that the employees cited “no evidence whatsoever in support of the notion that vaccination status is tied to a particular political belief,” nor did they show that South Carolina courts would “recognize vaccine refusal as a ‘political belief’ subject to any public policy exception to at-will employment.”  As such, the court found that plaintiffs’ vaccine refusal is likely not the type of politically-based belief or opinion contemplated by a South Carolina statute prohibiting termination on that basis. 

Ultimately, the court determined that the employees failed to show a likelihood of success on the merits of their claims, which is a primary factor for purposes of preliminary injunctive relief.  As a result, while the lawsuit proceeds, the employers’ mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policies will remain in effect.  

Although their motion for an injunction was denied, the Bauer lawsuit remains pending.  So do several similar lawsuits challenging employers’ mandatory vaccination policies in other states.  It remains to be seen whether the lawsuits will ultimately succeed, or whether the challenges will be rejected like the Supreme Court did more than a hundred years ago.  In the meantime, courts and employers continue to encounter and balance competing needs and opinions about vaccinations and the workplace. 

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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