It did not take long for the first major lawsuit based on a COVID-19 vaccine requirement to go through the courts. This month we look at that case, where a group of employees sued their employer, a Texas hospital, after it instituted a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy.  

The Facts

In response to the COVID pandemic and in an attempt to best protect its patients, on April 1, 2021, the Houston Methodist Hospital (“Hospital”) issued a policy requiring mandatory COVID-19 immunization of all employees. The policy was to be implemented in phases, with the first phase including management and newly hired employees. Employees were expected to get the vaccine, or to submit required documentation for an exemption based on a medical condition (including pregnancy deferment) or sincerely held religious belief.

After the Phase 1 group was vaccinated, the President of the Hospital issued a statement to employees saying that now that newly hired employees, executives, and managers were 100% immunized, it was time for the rest of the employees to comply. The letter gave employees until June 7th to be vaccinated. Consequences of not being vaccinated were immediate suspension for 14 days, and termination if the employee did not get vaccinated in the 14-day period.

A nurse and 116 other employees who did not want to be vaccinated instituted a lawsuit seeking to block the vaccine requirement and the job terminations. The complaint made numerous allegations, including that the vaccine was unapproved and therefore employees were in essence taking part in a clinical trial against their will. It alleged that the hospital was prioritizing profits over people, and it was forcing employees to be “human guinea pigs as a condition for employment.” The complaint went into great detail about the approval process for the vaccine, how the process was “rushed” by the World Health Organization and the United States Health and Human Services Department, and how it could take years for side effects of a new vaccine to manifest themselves.

The complaint claimed that the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) had identified serious COVID-19 vaccine health concerns, and that employees were being forced to take an “experimental product.” The plaintiffs even went so far as to argue that the Hospital’s policy violated the Nuremberg Code because employees were being used as part of a “medical experiment” without their informed consent about the risks of the vaccine.

The plaintiff employees claimed they had been wrongfully discharged under Texas’ exception to employment-at-will which allows an employee to sue for wrongful termination if the employee is fired for refusing to commit an illegal act. The plaintiffs also alleged that the mandatory vaccine policy violated a federal law regarding emergency authorization for medical products.

“Plaintiffs have been threatened for choosing not to take an FDA unapproved experimental vaccine which federal law states cannot be mandated because insufficient trials have been conducted and its long-term effects are not known,” stated the plaintiffs’ complaint. “Plaintiffs terminated for refusing to take an experimental vaccine which federal law states cannot be mandated, constitutes a retaliatory discharge under Texas law.”

In response to the complaint, the Hospital made a motion to dismiss in the United States District Court in the Southern District of Texas.