U.S. District Court in Massachusetts Dismisses Claims Related to Massachusetts Hospital’s COVID-19 Vaccination Policy
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- September 07, 2023
- Zoe Simon , McGuireWoods LLP
In a recent decision, McEntee v. Beth Israel Lahey Health, Inc., the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts dismissed three of four claims brought against a private Massachusetts hospital and others related to the hospital’s COVID-19 vaccination policy (Policy). The Policy required all employees receive or commence a two-dose COVID-19 vaccine regimen by a specific date. Employees who did not receive at least one dose by that day would be placed on a 14-day unpaid administrative leave. If those employees still failed to comply with the Policy by the end of the administrative leave, the hospital would deem those employees to have voluntarily terminated their employment. The Policy allowed employees to apply for exemptions to the vaccine requirement, including an exemption based on sincerely held religious beliefs.
Plaintiffs in the case are former Beth Israel employees, each of whom applied for a religious exemption to the hospital’s Policy and were denied and ultimately terminated for their failure to adhere to the Policy. These former employees brought a suit alleging that the defendants, through the Policy, (1) committed assault, (2) violated employees’ substantive rights under the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause, (3) violated employees’ substantive and procedural due process rights under the U.S. Constitution and Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, and (4) discriminated against employees in violation of state law. On August 1, 2023, the court dismissed the first three of these claims. The court’s key considerations are summarized below.
- The court dismissed plaintiffs’ allegation of assault for failure to state a claim.
The plaintiffs described defendants’ assaultive conduct as “‘trying to force [p]laintiffs to be vaccinated under the penalty of losing their jobs if they did not,’ with the concomitant threat of physical harm being described as ‘sticking a syringe into [p]laintiffs’ arms, likened to battery, and injecting an unknown substance into their body, the safety of which is yet still unknown.’” However, the court found that these facts did not prove the hospital or other defendants acted objectively menacing towards plaintiffs, or that plaintiffs had sufficient fear of being physically harmed by the defendants.
The court decision noted the discrepancy between psychological or emotional harm and physical harm, stating in dicta that “the threat of termination is a psychological rather than physical harm and thus does not constitute assault.” The court further supported its dismissal of the claim by referencing case law from other jurisdictions that rejected the notion that termination based on a refusal to be vaccinated may constitute a common law assault.
- The court dismissed plaintiffs’ allegation that the defendants violated the Equal Protection Clause under the Fourteenth Amendment for failure to state a claim. The court analyzed this allegation under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 as litigants do not have a direct cause of action under the U.S. Constitution. A plaintiff proceeding under Section 1983 must allege facts sufficient to show that the defendant acted under color of state law (i.e., as a state actor) and deprived the plaintiff of a federal constitutional or statutory right. In this case, plaintiffs failed to show that the defendants acted under color of state law.
Plaintiffs alleged the defendants were state actors because they (i) were beholden to and coerced by the federal government due to their receipt of significant federal funding and (ii) were complying with certain government policies such that the defendants were working with the federal government to implement the government’s vaccine mandate. The court rejected this argument.
Instead, the court confirmed that the receipt of federal funding does not transform a private party into a state actor, and a private party’s promulgation of government vaccine mandates is not state action. The court further stated that enacting a policy to abide by state regulations alone does not make a private party a state actor.
- The court dismissed plaintiffs’ allegation that the hospital’s Policy violated plaintiffs’ substantive and procedural due process rights under the U.S. Constitution and Massachusetts Declaration of Rights for failure to state a claim. As in Claim 2, the court analyzed the federal portion of this claim under Section 1983 and dismissed it given plaintiffs’ failure to show that the defendants were state actors.
For the portion of the claim that relies on the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, the proper cause of action is the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act (MCRA). MCRA claims require (i) proof of an existing right secured by federal or state law, (ii) interference or attempted interference with that secured right, and (iii) “that the interference or attempted interference was by ‘threats, intimidation or coercion.’” Here, the court determined that the plaintiffs failed to prove defendants interfered or attempted to interfere with a secured right. In its opinion, the court stated that the defendants did not physically force plaintiffs to receive a vaccine but gave employees the option between vaccination and termination. Under Massachusetts case law, termination or the threat of termination of employment does not constitute interference with a constitutional right if the employee is at-will.
Interestingly, in their motion to dismiss, the defendants argued that plaintiffs’ purported right “to be free from the invasion of bodily integrity and to be free from unwanted medical intervention” does not extend to a right to be free from compulsory vaccination. The court declined to consider this argument, noting as much in the opinion.
 No. 22-CV-11952-DLC, 2023 WL 4907617 (D. Mass. Aug. 1, 2023).
 Id. at 2.
 Id. at 3.
 Id. (referencing Reed v. Tyson Foods, Inc., No. 21-cv-01155-STA-jay, 2022 WL 2134410, at 14 (W.D. Tenn. June 14, 2022) (dismissing assault claim where plaintiff employees were “free to accept or refuse the COVID-19 vaccine . . . [and] pursue employment elsewhere”); Reese v. Tyson Foods, Inc., No. 3:21-05087-CV-RK, 2021 WL 5625411, at 7 (W.D. Mo. Nov. 30, 2021) (finding assault claim unlikely to succeed on the merits where plaintiff admitted he was not physically forced to receive vaccine)).
 Id. at 4.
 Mass. Gen. Laws c. 12, § 11I.
 Bally v. Northeastern Univ., 532 N.E.2d 49, 51-52 (Mass. 1989).
 McEntee at 5 (citing Nolan v. CN8, No. 08-12154-RWZ, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 99694, at 7 (D. Mass. Sept. 21, 2010), aff'd, 656 F.3d 71, 77 (1st Cir. 2011)).