Lawsuits still piling up over hospital vaccine mandates

As more hospitals and health systems mandated COVID-19 vaccination for their employees, lawsuits arose related to the policies.

Houston Methodist was the first large, integrated health system in the U.S. to implement a mandate, in spring 2021. In June of that year, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by more than 100 Houston Methodist employees, marking the first decision by a court regarding such a requirement at a health system.

The lawsuit, filed May 28, 2021, argued the mandate is illegal and forces workers to get an experimental vaccine to keep their jobs.

But U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes ruled June 12 that Houston Methodist did not violate state or federal law or public policy with its requirement.

Nearly a year after that lawsuit was dismissed, others have been filed against health systems.

Most recently, workers in Indiana filed a lawsuit against Indianapolis-based Ascension St. Vincent and its parent company, St. Louis-based Ascension, alleging religious discrimination, the Indianapolis Star reported May 31.

The lawsuit, filed May 27 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, comes on behalf of workers who were suspended without pay for refusing the vaccine on religious grounds.

Ascension "established a coercive process calculated to force healthcare workers and staff to abandon their religious objections to the COVID-19 vaccination and receive the vaccination against their will," the lawsuit claims. 

Ascension, a health system with more than 140 hospitals, announced its mandate in late July, saying at the time that tens of thousands of Ascension workers had already been vaccinated. Employees could request an exemption for medical or religious reasons. 

But the lawsuit filed May 27 said St. Vincent and Ascension "failed to individually and properly assess each application for religious exemption."

A St. Vincent spokesperson declined to comment to the Indianapolis Star about pending litigation. The newspaper and Becker's also requested comment from Ascension. 

The workers are asking the court to open a class-action lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The lawsuit seeks damages, including lost back wages due to unpaid suspension. 

Meanwhile, Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo Clinic could face a slew of lawsuits from employees alleging they were wrongly fired for refusing COVID-19 vaccines, the Post Bulletin reported May 18. 

Gregory Erickson, a Minneapolis attorney representing two former Mayo employees who recently filed such lawsuits, told the Post Bulletin at that time that the recently filed cases were among more than 100 similar suits he is filing against Mayo.

Mr. Erickson represents fired Mayo employees in Wisconsin, Florida and Arizona, but about 80 to 100 of the cases against Mayo will be for former Mayo employees who live in Rochester, he added.

Cases have already been filed on behalf of Shelly Kiel and Sherry Ihde. In the case of Ms. Kiel, she claimed she had natural immunity against COVID-19 after having the virus as well as having an opposition to the vaccine on religious grounds, according to the Post Bulletin. She was denied a religious exemption. Ms. Ihde claims she was denied a request for a religious accommodation to exempt her from weekly COVID-19 testing at Mayo, though her religious exemption from the vaccine was granted.

In a statement provided to the Post Bulletin about the lawsuits, Mayo said the health system "stands firmly behind the evidence supporting the efficacy and safety of COVID-19 vaccines to help protect the health and safety of our patients, workforce, visitors and communities. The Mayo Clinic COVID-19 vaccination program remains in effect."

The statement added, "Mayo Clinic recognizes that some employees have deeply held religious beliefs that led them to seek exemption from COVID-19 vaccination. In compliance with established laws, Mayo offered its employees the option to request a religious accommodation."

In January, Mayo estimated it would fire about 1 percent of its 73,000-person workforce because of noncompliance with the health system's required COVID-19 vaccination program.

As of Jan. 4, nearly 99 percent of staff across all Mayo Clinic locations had complied with the required vaccination program. 

Note: This article will be updated if a comment from Ascension is received.

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