The Eastern District of Kentucky, which falls within the purview of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, recently denied injunctive relief to a group of plaintiffs who challenged their employer’s mandatory vaccination requirement in Beckerich, et al., v. St. Elizabeth Medical Center Inc., et al.
In this case, plaintiffs are a group of healthcare workers who are employees or former employees of defendants St. Elizabeth Medical Center and Summit Medical Group (St. Elizabeth). St. Elizabeth recently enacted a mandatory vaccination policy, whereby an employee must receive a COVID-19 vaccination unless he or she requests a medical or religious exemption. Any employee who fails to comply with the policy may be terminated.
Plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in federal court against St. Elizabeth, raising constitutional and other claims in connection with the policy. As part of that litigation, plaintiffs filed a motion for a temporary restraining order and/or preliminary injunction, asking the court to prohibit St. Elizabeth from enforcing the policy. In support, plaintiffs argued that St. Elizabeth’s mandatory vaccination policy “infringes upon their constitutional rights and that Defendants have not approved religious and medical accommodations to the vaccination policy in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”).”
Court’s decision on mandatory vaccination policy
The court denied plaintiffs’ motion for a temporary restraining order and/or preliminary injunction. By way of background, courts generally analyze the following four factors to determine whether such motions should be granted: (a) whether the moving party has a strong likelihood of success on the merits; (b) whether the moving party would suffer irreparable harm without the injunctive relief; (c) whether the injunctive relief would cause substantial harm to others; and (d) whether the public interest would be served by granting the injunctive relief. The court discussed each of these factors in turn.
Strong success of likelihood on the merits
The court held that plaintiffs’ constitutional claims against St. Elizabeth had “zero likelihood of success on the merits” because St. Elizabeth is a private, non-government actor that is not subject to constitutional claims. The court then analyzed plaintiffs’ ADA and Title VII claims against St. Elizabeth. With respect to the ADA, the court reiterated what many employers already know: if an employer implements a vaccination mandate but does not provide reasonable accommodations to disabled employees, an employee has an actionable claim of discrimination under the ADA. Here, the evidence showed that St. Elizabeth complied with the ADA because it either granted full exemptions or granted deferments to 75% of employees who requested a medical accommodation to the vaccine requirement. The court also noted that no plaintiff suffered an adverse employment decision in violation of the ADA.
The court then analyzed plaintiffs’ Title VII claim of religious discrimination against St. Elizabeth. Here, the court held that plaintiffs could not establish a prima facie case of religious discrimination because St. Elizabeth either granted full exemptions or granted deferments to 95% of employees who requested a religious accommodation to the vaccine requirement. Moreover, St. Elizabeth did not deny a religious accommodation to any of the plaintiffs in this case.
The court continued its analysis by holding that plaintiffs failed to show irreparable harm would result in the absence of injunctive relief. Although plaintiffs argued that the loss of their employment is irreparable, the court disagreed. The court reasoned that loss of employment is fully compensable by monetary damages that any plaintiff who loses his or her employment can receive under the law. The court also held that no plaintiff in this case is suffering irreparable harm because St. Elizabeth’s policy does not call for forcible vaccination. Rather, the policy is merely a condition of employment.
Substantial harm to others and public interest
Here, the court held that the public interest is served by ending the COVID-19 pandemic, and that St. Elizabeth’s mandatory vaccination policy is permissible because it “balances the public interests with individual liberties.” St. Elizabeth’s policy is a condition of employment, just like its requirement that all employees receive an influenza vaccination. If an employee does not want to meet that condition, he or she may seek other employment.
Although this decision only applies to private, non-government employers, it shows that mandatory vaccination policies which allow for religious and/or medical exemptions are likely permissible under federal law.