Epstein Becker & Green

On June 12, 2021, a federal District Court in Texas soundly rejected an attempt by Houston medical workers to challenge the legality of their employer’s decision to require that all employees receive a COVID-19 vaccine. In the lawsuit, Bridges, et al. v. Houston Methodist Hospital et al., 117 hospital workers sued for an injunction to block the hospital’s mandatory vaccination policy as well as the termination of any employee unwilling to comply with the employer’s mandate that all employees be vaccinated against COVID-19. More specifically, the employees asserted that the vaccine mandate would result in wrongful termination in violation of the public policy of the state of Texas and federal law.

In an enlightened decision, Judge Hughes rejected the employees’ wrongful termination claim, as Texas law “only protects employees from being terminated for refusing to commit an act carrying criminal penalties to the worker,” and getting a COVID-19 vaccination is not an illegal act. The court found that Texas does not recognize a wrongful termination claim predicated on a violation of public policy and, even “if it did, [the hospital’s] injection requirement is consistent with public policy,” citing a 1905 U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled that compulsory vaccination was not a violation of due process. The court further explained that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s recently updated guidance provides persuasive advice that employers may require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, subject to reasonable accommodation requirements.

In addition, the court rejected the plaintiffs’ federal claim that the vaccine mandate violated federal law because it is not fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration, explaining that the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act does not confer a private right to sue an employer. It also dismissed plaintiffs’ argument that the vaccine mandate violated federal law that protects the rights of human subjects. In doing so, the court explained that the plaintiffs misrepresented the facts because the employees are not participants in a human trial, but are merely subject to a vaccine requirement. The judge further explained that the lawsuit’s reliance on the Nuremberg Code was misplaced because the Code does not apply to private employers, writing that it was “reprehensible” for the plaintiffs to equate a COVID-19 vaccine requirement to medical experimentation in Nazi concentration camps.

Finally, the court explained that the vaccine mandate is part of the bargain of at-will employment and does not constitute coercion, since the hospital is simply “trying to do their business of saving lives without giving [employees] the COVID-19 virus. It is a choice made to keep staff, patients and their families safer.” Employees “can freely choose to accept or refuse a COVID-19 vaccine; however, if [they] refuse, [they] will simply need to work somewhere else…Every employment includes limits on the worker’s behavior in exchange for his remuneration. This is all part of the bargain.”

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