Louisiana Supreme Court Relies on Employment-at-Will Doctrine in Enforcing Private Employer’s Vaccine Mandate

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On Friday, January 7, 2022, the Louisiana Supreme Court unanimously upheld a COVID-19 vaccine mandate program that the state’s largest private healthcare system implemented for its employees. Hayes, et al. v. University Health Shreveport, 21-01601 (La. 1/7/22). In doing so, the Court reaffirmed the employment-at-will doctrine, and its decision will likely be cited in many other types of employment law cases, including those asserting wrongful termination claims.

Lawsuits were filed in Shreveport and Lafayette in October of 2021 after Ochsner notified all of its employees that – absent an exemption for valid religious or medical reasons – they had to be fully vaccinated by October 29, 2021, or face discipline up to and including termination. The employees alleged that the vaccine program violated their right to privacy under the Louisiana Constitution, as well as Louisiana’s informed medical consent law. After the lower courts issued conflicting decisions about whether the employees were entitled to an injunction preventing Ochsner from taking any disciplinary action against unvaccinated employees, the Supreme Court took up both cases before the typical process played out in the circuit courts of appeal and heard oral arguments on an expedited basis.

In an opinion authored by Chief Justice Weimer, the state’s highest court reaffirmed the principle that the employment-at-will doctrine is firmly established in the Louisiana Civil Code at article 2747.[1] The Court concluded that the Louisiana Constitution’s right to privacy applies only to state actors and not to private employers. It also held that the informed consent statute codified at La. R.S. 40:1159.7 was inapplicable because the employees’ lawsuit did not allege a healthcare provider-patient relationship between Ochsner and its employees, but rather a standard employment relationship. Therefore, the Court found no exception to the employment-at-will doctrine.

As the Court made clear, “[t]he role of the courts is not to judge whether an employer’s personnel decisions are fair or good business decisions.” This strong pronouncement will support other private employers who choose to implement vaccine mandate programs. It will also be useful to employers in a variety of other cases where their personnel decisions are challenged. And the Hayes decision will have a significant impact beyond the employment law arena, because it limits claims alleging that rights granted by the Louisiana Constitution are protected against private (as opposed to state) action.

Contact our employment law team for help with state and federal law issues related to COVID-19, including vaccination and masking policies and managing exemption requests.

[1] Louisiana Civil Code article 2747’s anachronistic language provides: “A man is at liberty to dismiss a hired servant attached to his person or family, without assigning any reason for so doing.  The servant is also free to depart without assigning any cause.”

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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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