More Bad News for the Anti-Vaxxers: Washington State Mandate Upheld

A federal judge has refused to issue a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction in a COVID19 vaccine lawsuit brought by government employees, including three Spokane firefighters and several Washington State Patrol officers. Firefighters Travis Jay Wise, Daniel Betz, and Jerry Lease along with sixteen state employees filed suit this month claiming Governor Jay Inslee’s vaccine mandate is illegal.

The suit also named Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaffer, Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste, and several other state officials as defendants. The suit alleged the vaccine mandate was an unconstitutional violation of the First, Fifth and 14th Amendments, infringed on religious freedoms, violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, and violated the Contracts Clause of the US Constitution.

US District Court Judge Thomas O. Rice denied the plaintiffs’ request to block the COVID19 vaccine mandate concluding the likelihood of success on the merits was low, and they failed to prove their could suffer irreparable harm without the injunction, holding “it is well settled that loss of employment does not constitute irreparable harm.”

In explaining his reasoning, Judge Rice stated:

  • The Supreme Court has long endorsed state and local government authority to impose compulsory vaccines.
  • As the contours of judicial review for constitutional cases developed, courts continue to assess which level of scrutiny is applicable in vaccine mandate cases.
  • Federal courts have routinely analyzed such cases using rational basis and regularly reject cases similar to this one that challenge vaccine mandates based on free exercise of religion.
  • Indeed, many of the named Plaintiffs applied for and received an exemption based on their sincerely held religious beliefs.
  • Plaintiffs cannot demonstrate a discriminatory application solely because they disagree with the availability of accommodations. Plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate how the Proclamation is not generally applicable.
  • The Proclamation is narrowly tailored in that it applies to specific sectors whose employees are essential to combatting COVID-19 and who come into regular contact with vulnerable segments of the public.
  • Moreover, the State has a legitimate government interest in preventing the spread of COVID-19, as endorsed by the Ninth Circuit.
  • The Proclamation is rationally related to that interest because it is based on overwhelming evidence that the vaccines are safe and effective, and increasing vaccination rates among those employees who come into regular contact with vulnerable populations (e.g., those who are immunocompromised, who cannot get vaccinated—like children under age 12, and those who must interact with public employees—like prisoners) is a rational action to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
  • Plaintiffs’ objections to the Proclamation relate primarily to their disagreement with Defendants’ judgment regarding public health, which is insufficient to overcome the constitutionality of Defendants’ actions in enacting and promulgating the Proclamation, regardless of which level of scrutiny is applied. Plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate there are serious questions going to the merits of their free exercise claim, and that they are likely to succeed on those questions of merit.
  • Plaintiffs’ ADA claim appears to challenge only their employers’ alleged failure to provide reasonable accommodations.
  • In any event, Plaintiffs cannot demonstrate a likelihood of success on the merits or that there are serious questions going to the merits of their ADA claim because they have failed to satisfy the threshold requirement for filing an ADA claim in federal court.
  • To sustain an ADA claim in federal court, a plaintiff must first file a timely EEOC complaint against the alleged discriminatory party.
  • Plaintiffs were required to exhaust their administrative remedies prior to filing their ADA claims in federal court and they failed to do so.
  • Plaintiffs argue the Proclamation violates the Contract Clause of the U.S. Constitution because it is “a substantial modification of contracts” that “imposed a new qualification for employment, and a new job requirement.”
  • Nevertheless, the Court need not decide whether the Proclamation is a substantial impairment of contractual relations because there is no doubt that it is an appropriate and reasonable way to advance a significant and legitimate public purpose, which is curbing the spread of COVID-19.
  • As Defendants note, the Proclamation is well-supported by extensive medical evidence, recommendations by professional organizations, and aligns with other measures already in place in other governmental settings.
  • Conversely, Plaintiffs cite to no authority or evidence in the record to support their contention that the Proclamation is unreasonable.
  • Plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate they will succeed on the merits of their Contracts Clause claim and that there are serious questions going to the merits of the claim.
  • [T]he Court finds Plaintiffs have failed to show they are likely to succeed on the merits of their due process claim and that there are serious questions going to the merits of the claim.
  • Plaintiffs cannot succeed on their claim for relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 because they have not established any constitutional violations.
  • Plaintiffs argue the hardships from the loss of their employment outweighs any benefits gained by implementing the Proclamation.
  • Here, the balancing of equities tips heavily in favor of the evidenced-backed decisions of the government regarding public health and safety measures, as compared to Plaintiffs’ personal beliefs and accommodation preferences.
  • While the Court is sensitive to the potential economic hardships Plaintiffs face should their employment status change, the balancing of harm and equities weighs in favor of Defendants because there is a “legitimate and critical public interest in preventing the spread of COVID-19 by increasing the vaccination rate.”
  • Moreover, the public interest in reducing the dangers and spread [*20]  of COVID-19 would not be served by enjoining the Proclamation.
  • District courts across the country have come to the same conclusion.
  • Therefore, the Court finds the balance of equities tips in favor of Defendants and that the public interest would not be served by enjoining the Proclamation.

Here is a copy of the decision:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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