Seyfarth Synopsis: In a recent case out of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, the Court dismissed wrongful termination and violation of public policy claims brought by employees refusing an employer’s mandate to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. The case is Bridges v. Houston Methodist Hosp., No. 21- CIV-211774, 2021 WL 2399994, at *1 (S.D. Tex. June 12, 2021). It is the first court ruling of its kind, and is a must-read for all employers navigating the return-to-work and COVID-19 vaccine landscapes.
Beginning in April 2021, Defendant Houston Methodist Hospital announced a policy requiring its employees to be vaccinated against the COVID-19 pandemic at its own expense. Following the announcement of the vaccine requirement, 117 employees, comprising a small minority of Houston Methodist’s workforce, filed suit to block the vaccine requirement, alleging that the Hospital was unlawfully requiring its employees to receive vaccines, that any terminations as a result of such mandate would be wrongful, and that the Hospital was violating federal law. The Hospital moved to dismiss the case.
The Court’s Opinion
The Court granted the Hospital’s motion and dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims in their entirety.
As to plaintiffs’ claims of wrongful termination under Texas law, the Court opined that Texas only protects employees from termination if they refuse to commit a criminal act. The Court reasoned that receiving the COVID-19 vaccine is not an illegal act and emphasized that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has declared that employers can require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as long as they allow for reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities or sincerely held religious beliefs. Based on these considerations, the Court summarily dismissed the plaintiffs’ wrongful termination claims.
The Court then addressed the plaintiffs’ request for the Court to declare the vaccine mandate invalid because it violated federal law. The plaintiffs argued that individuals cannot be required to receive “unapproved” medicine and that no available COVID-19 vaccines have been fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The plaintiffs further argued that the vaccine requirement forced the Hospital’s employees to become “human subjects” in a trial of the vaccine and likened the vaccine policy to the forced medical experimentation during the Holocaust.
Calling the plaintiffs’ comparison “reprehensible,” the Court rejected the plaintiffs’ arguments, holding that they misapplied the federal laws relative to human trials for medications, misconstrued facts in the case, and were in no way forced or coerced to receive the vaccine. Ultimately, the Court concluded that, if the employees did not want to receive the vaccine, they “simply need to work somewhere else.” Id. at *2. For these reasons, the Court dismissed the remainder of the plaintiffs’ claims.
The Court’s decision in Bridges is notable as the first to uphold an employer’s policy of requiring its employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Although the EEOC has opined that employers may require the vaccine, Bridges provides some additional clarification on the issue.
Nonetheless, there are still several considerations surrounding this issue, and private employers should identify the extent to which they might require COVID-19 vaccines and how they will approach difficult issues where individuals are hesitant or unwilling to participate.