In one of the first rulings of its kind, a federal judge upheld a company policy requiring that employees at a Texas hospital be vaccinated against COVID-19. The lawsuit, brought by 117 employees against Houston Methodist Hospital, bore all the hallmarks of a frivolous case: dubious application of legal doctrines, conspiracy theories, and (of course) Nazi comparisons. It alleged claims for wrongful termination, violations of federal law governing the protection of “human subjects,” and the Nuremburg Code–which was created in the aftermath of World War II during the Nuremburg trials of Nazi officials.
The judge who dismissed the case (a Reagan appointee), methodically dispensed with each cause of action. He ruled that the employees had failed to demonstrate that they were required to commit an illegal act. Texas law limits wrongful discharge claims to instances in which an employer requires an employee to commit an illegal act that is punishable by incarceration. Many other states use a broader standard for wrongful discharge, such as whether the employer has commanded the employee to engage in a “violation of public policy.” Notably, the judge went out of his way to state that the employer’s vaccination requirement was consistent with public policy, citing the Supreme Court’s 1905 decision in Jacobson v. Massachusetts that state-imposed mandatory vaccination does not violate the due process clause.
The ruling also helpfully clarified that the employees were not coerced by being presented with the ultimatum of getting the vaccine or being terminated. Rather, the judge held that Methodist was “trying to do their business of saving lives without giving [their patients] the COVID-19 virus. It is a choice made to keep staff, patients, and their families safer.” While the employees can freely choose to accept or refuse the vaccine, their refusal means only that they “will simply need to work somewhere else.”
Finally, the judge forcefully rejected the claim that mandatory vaccinations amounted to forced medical experimentation during the Holocaust, calling such a comparison “reprehensible.” Although this section of the ruling has garnered the most headlines, perhaps more relevant for future cases challenging mandatory vaccination policies is the analysis regarding the “violation of public policy” prong of the wrongful termination claims. Wrongful termination claims will be a common cause of action brought against employers who implement mandatory vaccination policies. This ruling provides the framework for dispensing with future frivolous claims that employers will be forced to contend with.