First Lawsuit Challenging Employer-Mandated Vaccines Dismissed

On June 12, 2021, a Texas federal judge dismissed a lawsuit against Houston Methodist Hospital filed by unvaccinated nonmanagerial workers challenging the hospital’s policy that required all covered employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

The suit challenging the hospital’s vaccine mandate – Jennifer Bridges et al. v The Methodist Hospital – was filed on May 28, 2021. The hospital’s vaccination policy included a phased approach to vaccinating employees, with management personnel being in the first group of those requiring vaccinations by April 15, 2021. Those who did not comply absent a medical condition or sincerely held religious belief faced a two-week suspension; however, the management employees were 100% compliant.

The second phase of vaccinations for nonmanagers required vaccination by June 7, 2021, with a penalty of a two-week suspension for noncompliance and termination if an employee remained out of compliance. The hospital suspended 178 employees for failing to meet the June 7 vaccination deadline. More than 100 nurses and other healthcare workers then filed suit claiming that mandatory vaccinations are unlawful.

In their claim, Houston Methodist employees argued that taking the vaccine cannot be mandatory since the FDA has only authorized COVID-19 vaccines for emergency use. However, in dismissing the suit, U.S. District Judge Lynn N. Hughes wrote: 

“[Plaintiffs have] misconstrued this provision. It confers certain powers and responsibilities to the Secretary of Health and Human Services in an emergency. It neither expands nor restricts the responsibilities of private employers; in fact, it does not apply at all to private employers like the hospital in this case. It does not confer a private opportunity to sue the government, employer, or worker.”

Plaintiffs also alleged wrongful discharge under a public policy exception to the employment at-will doctrine under a Texas law that allows employees to sue for wrongful termination if they are fired for refusing to perform an illegal act. However, the judge noted that, “Texas law only protects employees from being terminated for refusing to commit an act carrying criminal penalties to the worker … Receiving a COVID-19 vaccination is not an illegal act, and it carries no criminal penalties.”

The plaintiffs said that they would appeal the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

HBL has experience in all areas of benefits and employment law, offering a comprehensive solution to all your business benefits and HR/employment needs. We help ensure you are in compliance with the complex requirements of ERISA and the IRS code, as well as those laws that impact you and your employees. Together, we reduce your exposure to potential legal or financial penalties. Learn more by calling 678-439-6236.

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Hall Benefits Law, LLC

HBL offers employers comprehensive legal guidance on benefits in mergers and acquisitions, Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs), executive compensation, health and welfare benefits, healthcare reform, and retirement plans. We counsel a wide spectrum of clients including small, mid-sized, and large companies, 401(k) investment advisors, health insurance brokers, accountants, attorneys, and HR consultants, just to name a few. HBL is passionate about advising clients, and we are dedicated to our mission: to provide comprehensive, personalized, and practical ERISA and benefits legal solutions that exceed client expectations.

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