Houston Memorial Hospital and several affiliated health care facilities announced to their employees on April 21, 2021 that they had until June 7, 2021 to show proof that they were vaccinated against COVID-19. The vast majority of the employees did so, but a number refused and filed a lawsuit against the hospital. The lead plaintiff was a nurse named Jennifer Bridges and she was joined by another 116 employees. On June 12, 2021, Judge Lynn Hughes of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas dismissed the case. The plaintiffs have announced that they will appeal. See Jennifer Bridges, et al., v. Houston Methodist Hospital, et al., Civil Action H-21-1774.
The plaintiffs brought both state and federal claims. Their state claim was that they were fired for performing an illegal act. This sounds strange, but Texas is very committed to the idea of employment at will, and there are very few exceptions recognized by Texas courts. One of these exceptions allows employees to sue employers who fire them for refusing to perform a criminal act. This exception was promulgated by the Texas Supreme Court in a 1985 case called Sabine Pilot Service v. Hauck.
Judge Hughes quickly disposed of this state claim. He said:
Texas law only protects employees from being terminated for refusing to commit an act carrying criminal penalties to the worker. To succeed on a wrongful termination claim, Bridges must show that (a) she was required to commit an illegal act – one carrying criminal penalties, (b) she refused to engage in the illegality, (c) she was discharged, and (d) the only reason for the discharge was the refusal to commit an unlawful act.
Bridges does not specify what illegal act she has refused to perform, but in the press-release style of the complaint, she says that she refuses to be a "human guinea pig." Receiving a COVID-19 vaccination is not an illegal act, and it carries no criminal penalties.
The plaintiffs’ federal claims were also quickly dismissed. Provisions of federal law with regard to emergency approvals apply only to the Secretary of Health and Human Services, not to private employers like the hospital. The claim that by requiring employees to take the vaccine the hospital was turning them into “human guinea pigs” also failed. The judge said that “[t]he hospital has not applied to test the COVID-19 vaccines on its employees, it has not been approved by an institutional review board, and it has not been certified to proceed with clinical trials.”
The plaintiffs’ most melodramatic claim was that the hospital was violating the Nuremburg Code against medical experiments, which was an outcome of the trials of Nazis at Nuremburg after World War II. Judge Hughes was obviously offended by this claim. He wrote:
[Bridges] also says that the injection requirement is invalid because it violates the Nuremberg Code, and she likens the threat of termination in this case to forced medical experimentation during the Holocaust. The Nuremberg Code does not apply because Methodist is a private employer, not a government. Equating the injection requirement to medical experimentation in concentration camps is reprehensible. camps is reprehensible. Nazi doctors conducted medical experiments on victims that caused pain, mutilation, permanent disability, and in many cases, death.
Lastly, Judge Hughes points out that claims that plaintiffs have been coerced into taking the vaccine are erroneous:
This is not coercion. Methodist is trying to do their business of saving lives without giving them the COVID-19 virus. It is a choice made to keep staff, patients, and their families safer. Bridges can freely choose to accept or refuse a COVID-19 vaccine; however, if she refuses, she will simply need to work somewhere else.
Acceptance of the COVID-19 vaccination has become a political issue for some reason, so this case will surely not dispose of the issue. Not only will this case be appealed, but it is likely that similar cases will be brought in other jurisdictions. It remains to be seen whether other courts will reach the same conclusions.