Written by Jeremy Mittman and Stephen Franz
As a handful of employees across the country have filed lawsuits challenging workplace COVID-19 vaccination mandates, many employers have been left to grapple with whether they can implement a mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policy as a condition of employment. At least according to one Texas federal district court, the answer is yes.
Judge Hughes of the United States District Court recently dismissed a lawsuit by Houston Methodist Hospital employees challenging the hospital’s directive that employees must be vaccinated by a certain date to remain employed.
In the dismissal order, the court began by dismissing the employees’ contention that available COVID-19 vaccines are experimental and dangerous. The court then rejected the employees’ claim that the hospital’s vaccination mandate was against public policy. As Judge Hughes noted, the vaccination requirement was consistent with public policy because the Supreme Court has held that state-imposed vaccination requirements do not violate due process, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has opined that employees can largely be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
The court also noted that employees were not being “coerced” into being vaccinated; dissenting employees were free to refuse a vaccine, but would need to find other jobs.
While this decision is heartening news for those in favor of a mandatory vaccination policy, employers should still exercise caution in their reliance on the decision.
First, the order interpreted Texas/federal law and is not precedential. This means courts in other jurisdictions (e.g. California) can choose to ignore it, particularly if the legal standards at issue are different from those in Texas/federal law.
Second, the court noted the employees in question are highly-educated doctors, nurses, medical technicians, and hospital staff working at a hospital “trying to do their business of saving lives without giving them the COVID-19 virus” (as opposed to other professions outside the medical field).
Nonetheless, this decision conforms with the relevant EEOC regulations and California laws which do not seem to preclude employers from mandating vaccines (subject to compliance with other State and Federal laws regarding employment discrimination and reasonable accommodations for disability and religious beliefs). Employers should continue to consult with their trusted employment counsel for further guidance.