On June 12, US District Court Judge Lynn Hughes dismissed a lawsuit against Houston Methodist Hospital by employees who opposed a Covid-19 vaccine mandate as a condition of employment.

This was the first ruling by a federal court on this issue.

Was this a case about vaccine safety?

No.

In his decision the judge noted that the plaintiff’s statements that the vaccine was dangerous were false but then specifically stated that that falsity was not relevant to the case.

What type of case was this?

This was a wrongful termination case, claiming that the hospital, a private employer, had improperly suspended-without-pay / would terminate  the 117 employees who did not come under a medical or religious exemption but who still refused vaccination.

What rule normally applies in such cases?

The EEOC has held that employer requirements for on-site employees to be vaccinated (with appropriate medical and religious exemptions) do not violate anti-discrimination statutes such as the Americans with Disabilities Act.

It actually extended this to COVID-19 vaccination on the day that the suit was filed. What did the plaintiff(s) claim?

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As the judge noted, although this EEOC guidance is not binding as law it did suggest how a case would be viewed at the Commission.

The plaintiff(s) were making an end-run around this, claiming that the COVID-19 vaccines were experimental because they were still under Emergency Use Authorization status and that this converted them, as recipients, into “guinea pigs”, but without the consent that federal law required.  Suspending / firing them for refusing was therefore wrongful.

They then claimed that this also violated the Nuremberg Code, a set of principles (not US or Texas law) against coerced human experimentation by governments, such as the actions perpetrated by the Nazis on prisoners.

How did the judge hold?

  • The federal government can release an emergency countermeasure like the COVID vaccine. The law that governs this does not apply to a private employer.
  • This was not a human trial. No such had been applied for or approved by an IRB. This was just hospital staff under a mandate to make the facility safer.
  • The Nuremberg Code does not apply to private actors and the analogy to atrocities was “reprehensible”.
  • There was no coercion. This was just a directive that an employee may be required to follow. The plaintiff(s) were free to reject it and to seek work elsewhere.
  • The wrongful termination claim failed as a matter of law.

Could this change? 

The lawyer for the plaintiff(s) announced the intention to appeal and the Fifth Circuit is very conservative as is the majority on SCOTUS.

However, as a practical matter, manufacturers are going to be submitting for full clearance, so the EUA issue will become moot soon.

The standing parameters will then still be the 1905 Supreme Court precedent (Jacobson v. Massachusetts) that state vaccine mandates are constitutional and the EEOC’s guidance as to vaccine mandates in a private employment setting.

What is the practical effect of this case for me?

Your private facility’s or private office’s employee vaccination requirement is likely to be upheld if challenged, including on the basis that the vaccines are still under an EUA.