COVID-19 has presented no shortage of legal questions for employers, from shutdowns and layoffs to when and how to reopen. And with COVID-19 vaccines now broadly available in the United States, some companies (especially those in high-risk environments like hospitals and nursing homes) face a new question: whether they can require COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of employment. On June 12, 2021, Judge Lynn Hughes in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas found that such a requirement was legally permissible in Jennifer Bridges v. Houston Methodist Hospital (Case No. 4:21-cv-01774).
In April 2021, Houston Methodist Hospital announced a policy requiring its employees to receive a COVID-19 vaccine and stated that it would terminate the employment of employees who did not timely receive a COVID-19 vaccine (subject to reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities or sincerely held religious beliefs). Jennifer Bridges and 116 other employees sued to block this requirement of continued employment with Houston Methodist, arguing that it (1) constituted wrongful termination and (2) violated federal law.
Houston Methodist moved to dismiss the lawsuit. In granting Houston Methodist’s motion, Judge Hughes panned the plaintiffs’ “press-release style of [a] complaint,” and found “reprehensible” plaintiffs’ comparison of Houston Methodist’s policy to forced medical experimentation during the Holocaust.
The court explained that the plaintiffs’ wrongful termination claim failed since Texas law regarding a claim for wrongful termination only protects employees from termination for refusing to commit an illegal act, and there is nothing illegal about receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. The court also found that, even if Texas recognized a “violation of public policy” exception to at-will employment, Houston Methodist’s vaccine requirement was consistent with public policy. The court also noted the EEOC’s recent COVID-19 vaccination guidance, which states that employers can require COVID-19 vaccines for employees, subject to reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities or sincerely held religious beliefs.
Additionally, the court rejected the claim that Houston Methodist’s vaccine policy violated federal law. Although the plaintiffs pointed to regulations allowing for the introduction of voluntary medical products in an emergency and imposing requirements for human trials of food and drug products, the court explained that these provisions did not apply to a private employers’ decisions. Finally, the court explained that Houston Methodist had not “coerced” any employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Rather, each employee could “freely choose to accept or refuse a COVID-19 vaccine; however, if she refuses, she will simply need to work somewhere else.” The court found that Houston Methodist’s vaccine requirement was “all part of the bargain” of at-will employment.
While the plaintiffs’ counsel has announced his intent to appeal, Judge Hughes’ decision affirms that employers have the ability to decide whether to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for their employees, subject to reasonable accommodations as noted in the EEOC guidance.