A Texas hospital system’s mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy for employees can stand after a federal judge on Saturday dismissed a closely watched lawsuit from workers refusing to get the shot.
Southern District of Texas Judge Lynn Hughes made his decision days after Houston Methodist Hospital suspended 178 workers for not getting vaccinated by a June 7 deadline.
The hospital system’s policies were not coercion against staff, Hughes said. They were a choice the hospital system made “to keep staff, patients, and their families safer.”
The 117 suing workers, including plaintiff Jennifer Bridges, a nurse for almost seven years at the hospital system, had their own choices to make, the judge said. Bridges and other plaintiffs had every right to accept or refuse the vaccine. “If she refuses, she will simply need to work somewhere else,” the decision said.
Hughes wrote that employers could impose consequences for noncompliance on all sorts of rules, far beyond vaccination.
“If a worker refuses an assignment, changed office, earlier start time, or other directive, he may be properly fired. Every employment includes limits on the worker’s behavior in exchange for his remuneration. That is all part of the bargain.”
Suspended workers could be fired if they are still not vaccinated following a two-week unpaid suspension, said court papers filed ahead of the ruling.
Houston Methodist said it was “pleased and reassured” by the judge’s ruling. “We can now put this behind us and continue our focus on unparalleled safety, quality, service and innovation,” Dr. Marc Boom, the president and CEO of the hospital system with approximately 26,000 employees, said in a statement.
But Jared Woodfill, the lawyer for the suing workers, vowed to appeal the case all the way up to the Supreme Court. “This is just one battle in a larger war to protect the rights of employees … All of my clients continue to be committed to fighting this unjust policy.”
Woodfill said many of his clients contracted COVID-19 while treating patients during the pandemic. “As a thank you for their service and sacrifice, Methodist Hospital awards them a pink slip and sentences them to bankruptcy,” he said.
There are a handful of other pending lawsuits where workers are challenging their employer’s COVID-19 vaccination politics. But observers have said the Houston Methodist case was moving the quickest to a decision on a topic filled with open legal questions and charged emotions.
Houston Methodist “is forcing its employees to be human ‘guinea pigs’ as a condition for continued employment,” the lawsuit alleged. Hughes singled out the “human guinea pig” phrase and said the workers’ lawsuit was written in a “press release style.”
Though lawsuit devoted most of its attention to the argument that the COVID-19 vaccines were allegedly “experimental and dangerous,” the judge said that claim was “false” — and it was also “irrelevant” to the litigation.
The hospital has defended its policies, saying mandatory employee vaccination was critical for patient and worker safety. The policy included exemptions on religious and medical grounds.
As of Saturday, 53.9% of America’s adult population were fully vaccinated and 64.3% received at least one dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The suing workers noted the Pfizer
vaccine, as well as the Moderna
and Johnson & Johnson
vaccine are publicly available because the Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization to the drugs.
In the eyes of the workers, the statute on this type of FDA authorization said workers had the right to refuse taking the vaccine.
The workers had it wrong because those particular provisions didn’t give them an opening to sue, Hughes said. Besides, Hughes noted, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has said employers can require vaccination.
On June 4, Hughes said he would not block Houston Methodist from imposing a June 7 deadline for vaccination.
In a decision at the time, Hughes wrote the plaintiffs were “not just jeopardizing their own health; they are jeopardizing the health of doctors, nurses, support staff, patients, and their families.”