HealthcareLocal NewsHouston Nurses Appeal Vaccine Mandate Case to Fifth Circuit, Aiming for Supreme Court

A lawsuit over Houston Methodist System’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate as a condition of employment has been appealed as workers say they are being forced to serve as “guinea pigs.”
June 16, 2021
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After a federal court judge sided with a Houston hospital system last weekend, medical workers suing over a COVID-19 vaccine mandate have filed an appeal in hopes of pushing the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In April, Houston Methodist Hospital system notified approximately 26,000 employees that they must receive the emergency-authorized COVID-19 vaccine or be subject to termination. Hospital administration gave workers a June 7 deadline to submit to the vaccinations or be placed on a 14-day unpaid suspension followed by termination.

In May, 117 Houston Methodist employees filed suit in a state district court in Montgomery County, but in June the case transferred to the federal court system. 

On the day of the June 7 deadline a number of employees walked off the hospital’s Baytown campus to join demonstrators in protest, and the following day Houston Methodist suspended 178 employees for non-compliance with the mandate.

Last weekend, U.S. District Court Judge Lynn Hughes dismissed the federal lawsuit saying plaintiffs had not been coerced by their private employer and had the choice to “simply…work somewhere else.”

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On Monday, plaintiff’s attorney Jared Woodfill filed an appeal to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Houston Methodist nurse Jennifer Bridges, the lead plaintiff in the case, vows to fight all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary.

“This is only the beginning. We are going to be fighting for quite a while.”

Bridges and other suspended employees argue that the COVID-19 vaccines have not been fully vetted and are not yet fully approved by the FDA. Instead, vaccines have been given emergency use authorization (EUA). Under the usual process, full approval is only granted after several years of study and evaluation of efficacy and adverse side effects.

“We are not anti-vaccination,” Bridges said at last week’s protest. “But we don’t want to be human guinea pigs.”

Last year, some Centers for Disease Control and Prevention documents indicated that EUA vaccines could not be made mandatory, but the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently asserted that employers could require the vaccines as long as they offered some “reasonable accommodations.” 

Woodfill asserts that as a “case of first impressions” with little legal precedent, there is a strong possibility the Supreme Court could take up Bridges et al v Houston Methodist Hospital or a similar case this year.

Courts have previously upheld the right of employers to require flu vaccinations if accommodations are made for disabilities or religious objections, but COVID-19 vaccine objectors note the flu vaccines are fully FDA approved, but that a mandate for an EUA vaccine would violate federal laws governing medical experimentation.

Susan Bickley, a labor and employment partner with Blank Rome in Houston, says that Hugh’s dismissal of the case was not unexpected.

“Based on the law as I understand it and as most labor employment lawyers understand it, it was expected to be dismissed,” Bickley told The Texan. “In my opinion, it was correctly decided.”

Bickley agreed that to some extent under the EUA conditions this may be a case of first impressions, but did not think the circumstances, under which workers may seek other employment, offered the right to sue an employer requiring a COVID-19 vaccine as long as the employer followed EEOC guidelines providing for accommodations or appropriate exemptions.

According to Houston Methodist, more than 600 employees were given medical or religious exemptions or deferrals “due to pregnancy or other reasons,” and Hughes cited the EEOC guidelines in his published opinion.

The issue may become increasingly complicated as employers ramp up post-pandemic hiring while trying to determine whether a fully vaccinated staff or employee privacy is more attractive to new hires according to Bickley. 

In addition, some states are considering bans on mandatory COVID-19 vaccines or vaccine passports, and last week Governor Abbott signed legislation prohibiting private business or government entities from requiring vaccine passports in Texas.

Woodfill is one of many voices calling for state legislation to prohibit employers from requiring employees “to participate in a vaccine trial as a condition for employment,” and wants Abbott to add the issue to a potential special session.

If the federal court’s ruling is allowed to stand, however, more employers may impose COVID-19 vaccinations as a condition of employment.

“Judge Hughes’ opinion gave a shot in the arm to employers who want to mandate the vaccine,” said Bickley.

The judge did not rule on the safety of the vaccine itself and he struck a declaration from Dallas cardiologist Peter McCullough as an “improper attempt to introduce expert testimony.”  

McCullough has testified before the state Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee on COVID treatments, and his declaration to the court outlined concerns over the experimental status of the vaccines. 

“The fact that the safety of these vaccines is questionable is not controversial,” wrote McCullough.

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Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.