June 18, 2021
U.S. District Court Judge Lynn Hughes dismissed a lawsuit brought by hospital workers in Texas that challenged their employer’s vaccine mandate, giving employers a measure of confidence that workplace vaccine mandates can survive legal challenge. The case marks the first time a federal judge has ruled on the issue.
The facts: The employer, Houston Methodist Hospital, gave its employees a June 7 deadline to become vaccinated (at the employer’s cost). 117 employees refused and brought suit against the hospital to invalidate the vaccination requirement, arguing wrongful termination and that the mandate was in violation of federal law.
Judge Hughes summarily rejected the employees’ arguments, citing EEOC guidance that clarifies that employers can require vaccination, as well as Supreme Court precedent that held that vaccine mandates are not contrary to public policy. Judge Hughes also denied that the employees were being “coerced” by the vaccination requirement, stating that the employees were welcome to work elsewhere if they refused Houston Methodist’s vaccine mandate.
Precedential value: Although the ruling is not binding on other potential cases—meaning other judges presented with similar legal challenges are not required to follow Judge Hughes’ decision—as the first decision on the issue, it will nevertheless provide persuasive authority for other jurisdictions to follow.
Meanwhile, state legislators have continued to push legislation to restrict vaccine mandates or passports. At least six states—Arkansas, Florida, Montana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Utah—have already passed legislation limiting vaccine mandates, while 11 states have banned the use of vaccine passports. More than 30 other states are considering similar legislation.
Outlook: A widespread presumption that private employers may require their employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine—subject to reasonable accommodation and confidentiality provisions under the ADA—has existed since the vaccines became widely available and was further reinforced by the EEOC guidance mentioned above. The decision in Texas provides employers further reassurance that instituting a vaccine mandate for their employees is lawful. Nevertheless, such mandates will continue to be subjected to legal challenges, particularly while the vaccines remain under the Emergency Use Authorization. Further, employers need to be aware of state-level bans against vaccine mandates in certain contexts and the potential for more states to legislate in this area.