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Texas judge's ruling adds to 'growing weight' against workers fighting COVID-19 vaccine mandates

·Reporter
·5 min read

A federal judge's dismissal on Saturday of a case brought by Texas hospital workers challenging a COVID-19 vaccination requirement could influence similar cases across the U.S., legal experts say.

On Saturday, Texas federal judge Lynn Hughes became the first to weigh in on a line of cases across the country challenging prevailing legal thought that, so long as private employers comply with medical and religious exceptions, they can fire employees who refuse COVID-19 vaccination.

HOUSTON, TEXAS - JUNE 09: Medical workers and pedestrians cross an intersection outside of the Houston Methodist Hospital on June 09, 2021 in Houston, Texas. Houston Methodist Hospital has suspended 178 employees without pay for 14 days for their refusal to comply with its COVID-19 vaccine requirement. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
Medical workers and pedestrians cross an intersection outside of the Houston Methodist Hospital on June 09, 2021 in Houston, Texas. . (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

The district judge dismissed the case, finding that under Texas law and federal law the defendant, Houston Methodist Hospital, lawfully suspended 178 employees who refused vaccines.

While the case directly impacts Montgomery County workers who sued and other workers within the jurisdiction, legal experts say it’s likely to impart at least some influence on pending cases elsewhere.

“Certainly a precedent in one state is not binding on courts in other jurisdictions, but this is a federal court, and as a general rule, a federal court’s decision has a higher percent value than say a decision by a Texas state judge,” George Washington University Law School public interest law professor John Banzhaf told Yahoo Finance. “This new decision simply adds to the growing weight.”

The dismissal confirms that private employers can still legally mandate the vaccine even though the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only authorized it for emergency use without giving it full approval yet, Brett Coburn, attorney with Alston & Bird, told Yahoo Finance. Still, Coburn said, no one should expect the decision to deter the Montgomery County workers, who already said they're appealing, or other workers who want to sue over vaccination requirements.

"I don’t think it’s going to dramatically change where we are," Coburn said.

Registered Nurse Sheba Phillip prepares a syringe with a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), during a vaccination event for local adolescents and adults outside the Bronx Writing Academy school in the Bronx borough of New York City, New York, U.S., June 4, 2021. REUTERS/Mike Segar
Registered Nurse Sheba Phillip prepares a syringe with a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in New York City, New York, U.S., June 4, 2021. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Similar lawsuits have been filed in federal courts in California, North Carolina, and New Mexico. And legal threats from workers in Wisconsin, and students whose universities bar unvaccinated people from campus, are upping the ante as businesses prepare to call remote workers back to the offices.

Outcomes in the remaining cases could resemble the Texas ruling, Banzhaf said, largely due to “at-will employment” laws, adopted in most U.S. states, coupled with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidance that companies can legally mandate vaccines for returning and new workers.

“Under our free enterprise system...businesses are free to adopt virtually any rules, or regulations, or restrictions that they want, provided that they don't violate some sort of public policy, and don't discriminate,” Banzhaf said.

'Inflated rhetoric and histrionic analogies'

Matthew Bodie, a professor of law for Saint Louis University, and an expert on employee privacy law, agreed that the case, as pleaded, was a long shot, especially considering its argument that Houston Methodist's vaccine requirement was akin to asking them to commit a criminal act. "The plaintiffs needed the court to take a creative and expansive approach to the law, and the court did not do so," Bodie said. 

As part of their argument, the workers characterized the early stage vaccines as "experimental" and argued that required injections violated terms of the post World War II Nuremberg Code, adopted by allied nations to prevent recurrence of experimental medical tests performed by Nazi physicians on non-consenting individuals for malaria, epidemic jaundice, smallpox, and cholera.

Bodie and Coburn added that the references to the Nuremberg Code and Nazi medical experimentation didn't help the case, given the judge's reaction to the comparison as "reprehensible."  

"It's harder to take your claim about vaccine concerns seriously when you use inflated rhetoric and histrionic analogies," Bodie said. "Perhaps the payoff in media coverage is worth it, but I'd have to think success in the lawsuit is still the bottom line."

FILE - In this March 30, 2020, file photo Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a news conference at a drive-through coronavirus testing site in front of Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)
In this March 30, 2020, file photo Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a news conference at a drive-through coronavirus testing site in front of Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)

Banzhaf anticipates the Texas judge’s decision will persuade other courts because it clarifies that it is not the role of judges to decide the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Despite the plaintiff’s argument that prior vaccine mandates, such as those for flu vaccines, are different from COVID-19 vaccines since they were imposed after full FDA approval, courts are unlikely to interfere with the authority that Congress vested in agencies such as the FDA — even if that authority amounts to emergency use authorization.

The position could also help withstand concerns over adverse reactions, including cases of rare heart problems following immunization of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.

Vaccine status as a 'protected trait'

While other courts might uphold employer vaccine requirements, those requirements would be difficult to enforce in states that have already or in the future bar employers from requiring proof of vaccination. 

To date, Montana has one of the most aggressive laws in the country protecting its citizens, including workers, against vaccine requirements. Under the law, effective July 1, employers may not refuse employment or discriminate against unvaccinated people.

"Montana has essentially made vaccine status a protected trait...and you can't make any decisions based on someone's vaccine status in the same way you can't make decisions based on someone's race or gender," Coburn said.

A number of other states have adopted laws preventing state and local governments from withholding services or benefits from unvaccinated individuals. Utah Governor Spencer Cox (R) signed a law that prohibits state agencies and public universities from requiring people to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, or show proof of vaccination.

Florida governor Ron DeSantis (R) issued an order prohibiting private companies from requiring customers or patrons to prove their vaccination status. Other states — Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, and Texas — have also adopted similar laws.

Alexis Keenan is a legal reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow Alexis on Twitter @alexiskweed.

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