Seyfarth Synopsis: As the COVID-19 era continues to unfold, many employers have adopted back-to-work polices that include mandatory vaccinations for their employees. In Beckerich, et al. v. St. Elizabeth Medical Center, et al., Case No. 21-105-DLB-EBA (E.D. Ky. Sept. 24, 2021), the Defendants, a hospital group, did just that. In response, Plaintiffs, a group of healthcare workers, filed a lawsuit seeking a preliminary injunction prohibiting Defendants from enforcing the policy. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky denied Plaintiffs’ bid for a preliminary injunction because Plaintiffs could not demonstrate that any of the factors that courts consider in favor of injunctive relief. Notably, Plaintiffs could not demonstrate a likelihood of success on their underlying constitutional, ADA, and Title VII claims.
This case is a must read for employers that have adopted, or are considering adopting, a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy. This case highlights the theories of relief Plaintiffs are likely to seek and demonstrates the importance of maintaining a process for requesting and granting reasonable accommodations to avoid claims of discrimination.
In this case, the employer maintained a vaccination policy that required its healthcare employees to either receive a COVID-19 vaccine or submit a request for a medical exemption or an exemption for a sincerely held religious belief. Employees who did not comply with this policy would be subject to termination. Id. at 2.
Plaintiffs sought a preliminary injunction on the ground that the employer’s vaccination policy infringed on their constitutional rights and failed to provide religious and medical accommodations required under the American With Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (“Title VII”). Id. After considering the traditional preliminary injunction factors – the likelihood of success on the merits, irreparable harm, substantial harm to others, and the public interest – the Court held that Plaintiffs were not entitled to injunctive relief. Id.
The Court concluded that Plaintiffs could not demonstrate a strong likelihood of success on any of their claims, the first factor for consideration when determining whether to grant a preliminary injunction. With respect the constitutional claim, the Court concluded that the defendant employer was not a “state actor” and thus its actions were not subject to Fourteenth Amendment scrutiny. As such, the likelihood of success for Plaintiffs’ constitutional claims was “virtually nonexistent.” Id. at 6.
The Court reached a similar conclusion concerning Plaintiffs’ ADA claim. The Court noted that the ADA generally requires employers to provide a process by which a disabled employee can seek a medical exemption to a COVID-19 vaccination requirement. Id. at 7. Plaintiffs’ strongest claim, according to the Court, was that the employer “corrupted this process.” Id. Nonetheless, the Court concluded that Plaintiffs had not shown that the employer failed to provide the necessary medical accommodations to the vaccination requirement, noting that the employer granted exemptions or deferments to 75 percent of the applicants. Id.
Plaintiffs’ Title VII claim was unavailing for similar reasons. Indeed, the Court noted that none of the Plaintiffs in the case had been denied a religious exemption, and in fact, 11 of the 40 Plaintiffs had been granted one. Id. As such, the Court concluded that Plaintiffs were unable to establish the third element of their Title VII claim, which requires discharge or discipline from their employer. And, similar to Plaintiffs’ ADA claim, the Court relied on the fact that the employer granted 57 percent of the requested religious exemptions. Id. at 11-12.
The Court also determined that the next preliminary injunction factor – irreparable harm – weighed against granting a preliminary injunction. The Court reasoned that there was no irreparable harm because no Plaintiff was forcibly vaccinated and, to the extent there is a violation of the ADA or Title VII, loss of employment, or emotional distress, Plaintiffs would be entitled to monetary relief.
Finally, regarding the last two factors – substantial harm to others and public interest – the Court grappled with the competing views of the parties regarding the efficacy and safety of the vaccinations, as well as the tension between “private equities and public equities, which have both been prominently raised in this case.” Id. at 17. Relying on Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11, 26 (1905), a Supreme Court decision that upheld a state-imposed vaccination and the penalty of imprisonment, the Court reasoned that “being substantially less restrictive than the Jacobson mandate, and being enacted by a private actor, Defendants’ policy is well within the confines of the law, and it appropriately balances the public interests with individual liberties.” Id.
On the whole, the Court held that Plaintiffs failed to state a viable legal theory in support of injunctive relief because each of the required factors, individually and collectively, weighed against the denial of injunctive relief.
Implications For Employers
Although the Court did not reach a decision on the merits of Plaintiffs’ underlying claims, this case distills the legal and factual issues involved in challenging and defending an employer’s mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy. While constitutional claims are likely a non-starter against private employers, ADA and Title VII claims may have merit depending on how employers carry out their policies.
Employers should take steps to insulate themselves from such claims by ensuring that they adopt a consistent process by which employees can seek religious and medical exemptions. Also, carefully documenting accommodation requests can go a long way – as it did in this case – in demonstrating that the employer has provided reasonable accommodations to avoid claims of discrimination.