In the first federal ruling on the issue, a Texas District Court judge recently dismissed a lawsuit brought by employees of Houston Methodist Hospital who opposed the Hospital’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate as a condition of their employment. The Court ruled against the employees, holding that neither federal nor state law prevented the Hospital as a private employer from imposing the vaccination requirement as a condition of employment. The ruling is one of the first to consider an employer’s ability to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations in the workplace and is an important read for employers and employees alike. Davenport Evans lawyer Alayna Holmstrom explains.
The lawsuit, filed by unvaccinated Hospital employees, claimed terminating employees who refused the vaccination was a wrongful discharge under state and federal law. Under Texas law, employers may not lawfully discharge employees for their refusal to perform illegal acts. The employees argued that the Hospital’s vaccination mandate required them to perform an illegal act because the COVID-19 vaccines are only authorized for emergency use. The Hospital disagreed, arguing that the vaccination mandate did not require employees to perform any illegal act. The Hospital also noted that it gave employees the opportunity to request an exemption based on either a medical condition or sincerely held religious belief, in accordance with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidelines.
The Court rejected the employees’ wrongful termination claim, holding that Houston Methodist could mandate COVID-19 vaccinations as a condition of employment. The Court likened the vaccination requirement to other workplace mandates such as employee start times, assignments, or other conditions of work that employees must comply with in order to avoid being fired. The Court held that the law “only protects employees from being terminated for refusing to commit an act carrying criminal penalties” and getting a COVID-19 vaccination was not an illegal act. The Court further explained that the vaccine mandate was part of the at-will employment bargain and that “[e]very employment includes limits on the worker’s behavior in exchange for” the employee’s salary and benefits.
The Court also rejected the employees’ argument that the vaccination requirement was contrary to public policy, noting that Texas law does not recognize such an exception to at-will employment and that the United States Supreme Court has rejected similar challenges to mandatory vaccine requirements and involuntary quarantines for contagious diseases. Finally, the Court rejected the employees’ argument that the vaccine mandate violated federal law because the vaccine is not fully approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), holding that the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act does not confer a private right to sue an employer. The employees have already appealed the Court’s ruling.
Prior to the ruling, the EEOC updated its COVID-19 guidance and reiterated that employers can mandate COVID-19 vaccinations, subject to reasonable exemptions and accommodations for employees with sincerely held religious beliefs and disabilities. If individuals require an exemption, EEOC guidance suggests the employer will need to provide reasonable accommodations, which could include allowing the employee to wear a face mask, social distance, or work modified shifts. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also recently updated its COVID-19 guidance.
So what does this all mean? The case provides important precedent for employers who have already imposed or are considering imposing vaccination mandates. Although the ruling is not binding on South Dakota courts, the decision is the first on the issue and may serve as persuasive authority to other courts. Between changing federal guidance and upcoming court decisions, the issues and decisions facing employers and employees regarding COVID-19 vaccinations remains rapidly evolving.