Federal district court denies two initial attempts at blocking federal vaccine mandate for employees

A federal district court declined to block the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for employees on Monday, denying plaintiffs in two separate cases a chance at earning immediate relief from the president’s September executive order.

The first case involves 18 civilian employees and two active-duty servicemembers who sued the Biden administration in the U.S. District Court for the District Columbia. Their complaint describes a variety of constitutional arguments.

The employees and servicemembers asked for preliminary injunctive relief from the mandate in late October. All 20 plaintiffs have requested religious exceptions from the mandate.

One civilian employee has received an exception so far. Both Marines had their initial exception requests denied. They’ve appealed to the Marine Corps commandant, and those requests are pending, the federal district judge in this case, Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, wrote in her opinion.

The Biden administration has said federal employees who have medical or religious exceptions will not be disciplined while their requests are pending, a point U.S. attorneys reiterated in their proceedings for this case.

Kollar-Kotelly drew on that point multiple times in her opinion, which she issued Monday.

“These exemption requests all remain pending, and during their pendency, no plaintiff faces disciplinary action for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine,” Kollar-Kotelly wrote in her opinion. “Plaintiffs, therefore, come before this court complaining of a compulsory inoculation they may never need to take, and of adverse employment actions they may never experience.”

To score a preliminary injunction, individuals must generally show they’re likely to succeed on the merits of their arguments, that they’ll suffer “irreparable harm” if they don’t receive preliminary relief and that the injunction is in the public interest.

The employees and servicemembers argued that the possibility of losing their jobs over the federal vaccine mandate creates irreparable harm. Kollar-Kotelly disagreed.

“While these plaintiffs colorfully label their potential adverse employment actions as ‘imminent,’
‘severe’ and ‘life-altering,’ none of the federal employee plaintiffs have offered an explanation regarding the specific adverse employment actions they actually face,” she said. “This makes sense, given that each federal employee plaintiff has an exemption request pending, during which time they are not subject to disciplinary action for their vaccine refusals.”

Finally, the court said the plaintiffs failed to show how their experiences with the mandate might outweigh potential harm felt by the public.

“Enjoining the federal employee vaccine mandate could risk sickening swathes of the civil service, prolonging remote work, impeding public access to government benefits and records and slowing governmental programs,” Kollar-Kotelly wrote. “Civilian employees who continue to telework do not live in a vacuum. Enjoining the mandatory vaccination requirements of executive order 14043 risks not only the health of federal agency employees, but also the health of those around them.”

The two parties have until the end of the week to issue a joint status report on their next steps.

Church, et al. v. Biden is one of several active lawsuits challenging the federal employee vaccine mandate. Here are a few others. This is not an exhaustive list.

There are several others challenging the federal vaccine mandate for contractors. You can read about a few of those cases here.

Altschuld et. al v. Raimondo et al. 

The second case involves more than 30 federal employee and contractor plaintiffs, who sued in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia last month.

The employees work for the departments of Agriculture, Defense, Commerce, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Justice and State, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Agency for International Development, CIA and Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The contractors each work for DHS and the State Department. Together, the plaintiffs said the federal vaccine mandate violated their individual rights under the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to their original complaint.

Like the employees in the first case, these plaintiffs also sought emergency injunctive relief from the federal vaccine mandate.

In seeking immediate relief, the plaintiffs say their potential firings are far from “a normal situation” and therefore, they argue, merit an “extraordinary case.” They also said they’ll “suffer irreversible ‘professional and personal reputational damage'” that “will only increase as the pressure for compliance with the vaccination deadline approaches.”

Judge Tanya Chutkan said the employees and contractors failed to show “irreparable harm.”

“While the executive orders contemplate the eventual termination of unvaccinated employees and contractors who do not qualify for an exemption, plaintiffs are incorrect that such termination is either imminent or certain,” Chutkan wrote in her opinion, which she also issued Monday.

During the initial proceedings for this case, employees told the court they hadn’t received formal notices calling for their removal, and they hadn’t gotten a definitive date or timeline describing potential adverse actions that their agencies might take on them. Those concessions, Chutkan said, undermine the plaintiffs’ claims of certain and irreparable harm.

“Plaintiffs have failed to show irreparable harm and are not entitled to a preliminary injunction. In so ruling, this court is guided by the century-old standard that mandatory vaccinations are a suitable expression of the public interest in health and safety,” Chutkan added.

AFGE Local 501 et al. v. Biden et al.

A union council representing correctional officers at the Bureau of Prisons has also sued the Biden administration over the federal vaccine mandate.

The lawsuit comes from the American Federation of Government Employees Council of Prison Locals, which represents 33,000 correctional officers across the country, and AFGE Local 501, which represents officers in Miami.

The union sued in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

In their complaint, the BOP council said the federal vaccine mandate violates their due process rights under the 14th amendment, as well as their rights to “privacy, self-autonomy and personal identity, including their right to reject mandated medical procedures and treatment.”

The federal vaccine mandate doesn’t comply with notice and comment provisions of the Administrative Procedure Act, the plaintiffs argued. They also say the federal vaccine mandate is a violation of their rights under the Privacy Act.

AFGE Local 501 et al. v. Biden is still pending in federal district court.

The union’s national office has said its position on the federal vaccine mandate, despite the lawsuit from one of its locals, hasn’t changed.

In a message to its members in late September, AFGE said the federal vaccine mandate was legal. And in a series of frequently asked questions about the mandate, the union pointed to a 2002 case, where a federal appeals court upheld the Navy’s decision to fire two civilian employees who refused the anthrax vaccine.

Since the Biden administration first announced a vaccine policy and later a mandate for federal employees, AFGE has consistently said it expects agencies to bargain over the requirements. It has also encouraged its members to get vaccinated.

On Tuesday, Everett Kelley, the union’s national president, asked the White House to extend the deadline federal employees have to comply with the vaccine mandate to Jan. 4, the same date the Biden administration recently gave to contractors to receive their doses.

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