In a recent case, a Texas federal District Court upheld an employer’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. There, employees of a Texas hospital sued the hospital, claiming the policy violated Texas public policy and federal law, and that termination of employees who refused to get the vaccine would constitute wrongful termination. The court dismissed the employees’ case, upholding the mandate. This is the first court opinion discussing such policies and is favorable to employers with similar policies.
Bridges v. Houston Methodist Hospital
April 1, 2021, Houston Methodist Hospital announced a new policy requiring all employees be vaccinated against COVID-19 by June 7, 2021 or face termination. 117 employees, including Jennifer Bridges, sued to block the requirement and resulting terminations.
Bridges argued that the available COVID-19 vaccinations are “experimental and dangerous.” The court pointed out that “[t]his claim is false, and it is also irrelevant.” The court also noted that “vaccine safety and efficacy [were] not considered” when the court made its determination.
Under Texas law, employees are only protected from termination “for refusing to commit an act carrying criminal penalties to the worker.” Additionally, to succeed on a wrongful termination claim, in Texas, Bridges must show: (1) she was required to commit an illegal act carrying criminal penalties; (2) she refused to engage in the illegality; (3) she was discharged; and (4) the only reason for the discharge was her refusal to commit an unlawful act. Since receiving the COVID-19 vaccine is not an illegal act and doesn’t carry a criminal penalty, her wrongful termination claim must fail.
Additionally, Bridges argued that requiring the vaccine violates public policy. However, the court noted that Texas does not recognize the public policy exception to at-will employment. The court held that even if Texas did recognize the public policy exception, it wouldn’t apply, because the vaccine requirement “is consistent with public policy.” The court pointed to previous Supreme Court decisions which found that involuntary quarantine for contagious diseases and state-imposed requirements of mandatory vaccination do not violate due process. The court also pointed to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (“EEOC”) recent guidance as support, although EEOC guidance is not binding. On May 28, 2021, the EEOC said that employers can require that employees be vaccinated against COVID-19, subject to reasonable accommodations for employees with sincerely held religious beliefs or disabilities that preclude vaccination.
Bridges also argued that the vaccination requirement violates federal law because it forces employees to either be vaccinated or fired. However, the court clarified that this isn’t coercion. The court determined that the hospital made a choice to do their business, while keeping staff, patients, and their families safe. The court noted that employees are free to accept or refuse the vaccine. The court analogized that “if a worker refuses an assignment, changed office, earlier start time, or other directive, he may be properly fired.” The court continued by holding that “every employment includes limits on the worker’s behavior in exchange for his remuneration. That is all part of the bargain.”
What Does Bridges v. Houston Methodist Hospital Mean for Employers?
While a Texas case may not seem relevant to Virginia employers, it sheds light on how courts across the nation may view mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policies for employees. This case is the first opinion addressing whether or not employers can require employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. While this case is not binding on Virginia courts, it may be an indication of how other courts will view similar issues. The ruling was favorable to employers, upholding an employer’s mandatory vaccination policy. Notably, the court found that such vaccine policies are consistent with public policy. However, this case dealt with a healthcare provider employer. It’s not yet clear if courts will view such policies outside of the healthcare sector differently. Regardless, this case, as well as the May EEOC guidance, seems to support mandatory vaccination policies, provided required exceptions are included, consistent with federal and state employment law.
Employers with mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policies already in place, or employers considering instituting such policies, should be sure to include provisions for reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities or sincerely held religious beliefs that preclude vaccination.
Employers should continue to monitor guidance from state and local governments to ensure they stay in compliance with any changing recommendations or regulations. Attorneys at GCPC will continue to monitor recommendations and legislation. For additional guidance, contact the employment law experts at General Counsel, PC today at 703-991-7973.