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October 01, 2021

Health Law Weekly

U.S. Court in Kentucky Refuses to Block Hospital’s COVID Vaccine Mandate for Workers

  • October 01, 2021

A federal court in Kentucky refused September 24 to issue a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction in a lawsuit challenging a private hospital’s requirement that employees be vaccinated for COVID-19 as a condition of employment.

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky found that plaintiffs, a group of health care workers, were unlikely to succeed on the merits of their claims that St. Elizabeth Medical Center’s mandatory vaccination policy violated their constitutional rights or federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination.

The policy requires hospital workers to be vaccinated for COVID-19 or “submit a request for a medical exemption or exemption for sincerely held religious beliefs” by October 1. Employees who fail to comply face termination of their employment.

According to the court, plaintiffs' constitutional claims were likely to fail because the private hospital isn’t a state actor. “Private hospitals, no matter how much federal funding they may receive, are generally not state actors for purposes of constitutional questions,” the court observed.

Plaintiffs employment discrimination claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Title VII also were unlikely to succeed, the court said.

Plaintiffs failed to show the hospital violated the ADA by not providing necessary medical accommodations to the vaccination requirement. Specifically, the court noted that the hospital granted full exemptions or granted deferments to 75% of employees seeking a medical accommodation to the vaccine requirement.

In addition, the court noted that no plaintiff had suffered an adverse employment decision because of a disability, which prevented them from establishing a prima facie case under the ADA.

Likewise, the court held that plaintiffs failed “to even suggest that they could raise a prima facie case of religious discrimination,” noting none had been denied a religious exemption. As a result, the court said it was unlikely plaintiffs could succeed on their claims under Title VII.  

The court also found plaintiffs failed to show they would suffer irreparable harm without injunctive relief. The loss of employment is not an irreparable injury because it is fully compensable by monetary damages, the court observed. And “no Plaintiff in this case is being forcibly vaccinated,” the court said.

Finally, in balancing the parties’ interests, the court pointed to the Supreme Court’s decision in Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905), which upheld a more far-reaching vaccination mandate for smallpox imposed by Massachusetts. 

Given that the hospital is a private actor and the mandate here is substantially less restrictive than the mandate at issue in Jacobson, the vaccination policy is “well within the confines of the law, and appropriately balances the public interests with individual liberties,” the court held.

“If an employee believes his or her individual liberties are more important than legally permissible conditions on his or her employment, that employee can and should choose to exercise another individual liberty, no less significant—the right to seek other employment,” the court concluded.

Beckerich v. St. Elizabeth Med. Ctr., No. 21-105-DLB-EBA (E.D. Ky. Sept. 24, 2021).


  • Coronavirus Pandemic