The complaint, filed on September 21, asks for an injunction against United Airlines that would prevent them from terminating or placing on unpaid leave any employee who has a basis for seeking a religious or medical exemption.
The injunction hearing is currently set for October 13 at 9:30 a.m. in the U.S. District Court for the North District of Texas, Fort Worth Division, where Judge Mark Pittman presides.
United has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit which is also set for a hearing on the same day at 8:30 a.m.
In early August, United became one of the first airlines to announce that it would require all employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The first dose must have been received by September 27. In late September, it announced that almost 600 employees would face termination for failing to comply with the mandate.
The mandate only allows for vaccination — there is no provision for regular testing, masking, social distancing, or natural immunity for those who were previously infected. United does not require its employees in other countries to be vaccinated.
As the plaintiffs point out, the European Union allows for three various forms of COVID-19 certification: vaccination, negative test, or recovery from the disease.
According to the complaint, Sambrano, who has worked for United for 31 years, requested a religious exemption from the vaccine mandate based on its development using fetal tissue. Sambrano regularly refuses vaccination as an adult based on this same belief. The accommodation he was offered was indefinite unpaid leave.
Having already recovered from COVID-19, Sambrano also requested a medical exemption. But the online accommodation system rejected his request because it only allowed him to submit either a religious or medical exemption.
Other Texas plaintiffs who requested accommodations in the case are David Castillo, an aircraft technician; Kimberly Hamilton, a station operations representative; Debra Jonas, a customer service representative; and Genise Kincannon, a flight attendant.
When it began granting religious and medical accommodations on September 9, United stated that the employees receiving accommodations would be placed on indefinite leave starting October 2 which could last up to 6 years, the complaint asserts.
The lawsuit argues that this accommodation is not reasonable as required by law, but is instead an “adverse employment action” and therefore constitutes discrimination. It also argues that the medical exemption is discriminatory under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
United, in its reply to the requested injunctive relief, claims that it “is making a good faith effort to manage workplace safety and provide reasonable accommodations in the face of unprecedented and rapidly evolving circumstances.”
It also filed a motion to dismiss, claiming that the U.S. District Court in North Texas fails to have jurisdiction over the case because “the mere fact that [the plaintiffs] live in Texas does not demonstrate that their claims challenging United’s policy are connected to Texas.”
In addition to an injunction, the lawsuit asks for monetary damages, including back pay, and attorney’s fees.
Update: On October 12, Judge Mark Pittman issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) against United Airlines preventing it from placing any employee on unpaid leave if that employee was granted a religious or medical exemption. United is also prevented from denying a medical or religious exemption due to the timeliness of its filing. The exemptions were originally due by August 31.
Pittman noted in his order that the TRO, which expires on October 26, is necessary to give the court time to determine “whether a preliminary injunction is warranted.” He noted that without the TRO, hundreds of workers might be either forced to take the COVID-19 vaccine or be placed on indefinite unpaid leave.
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Kim Roberts is a regional reporter for the Texan in the DFW metroplex area where she has lived for over twenty years. She has a Juris Doctor from Baylor University Law School and a Bachelor's in government from Angelo State University. In her free time, Kim home schools her daughter and coaches high school extemporaneous speaking and apologetics. She has been happily married to her husband for 23 years, has three wonderful children, and two dogs.