Federal Court in Texas Dismisses Lawsuit Claiming Wrongful Termination for Refusing COVID-19 Vaccine
June 16, 2021
In Bridges, et al. v. Houston Methodist Hospital, et al., Case No. 4:21-cv-01774 (S.D. Tex. June 12, 2021), the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas was tasked with deciding whether a policy issued by an employer that required all employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by a certain date or otherwise be subjected to termination from employment was valid and enforceable, or whether those employees that refused vaccination were wrongfully terminated.
In response to the employer’s motion to dismiss, the court determined that the vaccine requirement was permissible and that the plaintiffs were not wrongfully terminated. In so holding, the court acknowledged that Texas law protects at-will employees from termination for refusing to commit a criminal act. However, because the plaintiffs were unable to prove they were required to commit a criminal act punishable by criminal penalties, they refused to engage in the illegality, and the only reason for the termination from employment was the refusal to commit an unlawful act, the plaintiffs could not establish a claim for wrongful termination under Texas law.
The court also gave no credence to the plaintiffs’ argument that the vaccination requirement violated public policy, because, even if it did, a violation of public policy is not an exception to at-will employment. The court rejected each of plaintiffs’ arguments in this regard. First, it noted that the Supreme Court of the United States has previously held that involuntary quarantine for contagious diseases and state-imposed requirements mandating vaccinations do not violate due process. The court also was guided by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s position that private employers can require employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccine so long as employees with disabilities or sincerely held religious beliefs that preclude vaccination are reasonably accommodated.
The court also quickly disposed of the plaintiffs’ public policy argument that relied on 21 U.S.C. § 360bbb-3. The referenced statutory provision confers powers on the Secretary of Health and Human Services to authorize medical products for use in emergencies and requires the Secretary to ensure recipients of the medical products “understand the benefits and risks of use” and have “the option to accept or refuse the administration of the product.” The court succinctly explained that this provision in no way restricts private employers and does not confer an individual right to sue an employer.
The plaintiffs made additional public policy arguments under 45 C.F.R. § 46.116, which, according to the plaintiffs, barred the employer from forcing the plaintiffs to participate in a “human trial.” The court rejected this argument because Houston Methodist Hospital (the employer in this case) was not requiring its employees to participate in a “human trial” by requiring vaccination. Lastly, in responding to the plaintiffs’ argument that the injection requirement violated the Nuremberg Code, the court commented that the plaintiffs made a “reprehensible” comparison between the vaccination requirement and the forced medical experimentation that was conducted during the Holocaust. The court further noted that the Nuremberg Code did not apply because the hospital was a private employer, not a government, and the medical experimentation that occurred in concentration camps caused mutilation, permanent disability, and death, none of which occur when an individual is vaccinated for COVID-19.
In the court’s closing remarks, it noted that the plaintiffs are in no way being coerced to be injected with a vaccine. The hospital’s purpose in requiring the vaccine is to keep staff, patients, and families safer and the plaintiffs are free to accept or refuse vaccination. Refusal, however, means the plaintiffs must find work elsewhere.
The court’s decision in Bridges is significant and potentially far-reaching. Absent a bona fide disability or religious belief that precludes an individual from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, employees are going to have a difficult time challenging a private employer’s right to require inoculation. The court’s concluding comments at the end of its decision ultimately summarize an employer’s latitude in setting the terms and conditions of employment: “If a worker refuses an assignment, changed office, earlier start time, or other directive, he [or she] may be properly fired. Every employment includes limits on the worker’s behavior in exchange for his [or her] remuneration. This is all part of the bargain.”