Correcting COVID: District of Massachusetts Denies Correction Officers’ and Union’s Request for Injunctive Relief against Massachusetts’ Vaccine Mandate

On October 15, 2021, the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts denied plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction to prevent the enforcement of Massachusetts’ COVID-19 vaccine mandate for state employees. Mass. Corr. Officers Fed. Union v. Baker, No. 21-CV-11599 TSH, 2021 WL 4822154 at *1 (D. Mass. Oct. 15, 2021). (The district court’s opinion is available here.)

Case Background

On August 19, 2021, the Governor of Massachusetts issued an executive order requiring all executive agencies to implement a policy requiring COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of continuing employment. Id. at *2. The Executive Order provided for reasonable accommodations for any employee who was unable to be vaccinated due to medical disabilities or for a sincerely held religious belief. Id.

The Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union and four individual members of the union brought suit, alleging that the requirement violated the Contracts Clause of the U.S. Constitution and violated their Fourteenth Amendment rights. Id. at *1.

The Ruling

The district court denied plaintiffs’ request for injunctive relief, finding that plaintiffs were not likely to prevail on the merits of their claim as the Executive Order operated as a condition of employment, rather than a core provision of plaintiffs’ collective bargaining agreement, and could be seen as a reasonable and foreseeable mechanism to maintain a safe work environment. Id. at *4. The court further found that the Executive Order did not appear to prevent plaintiffs from safeguarding their rights, and even if plaintiffs could show a substantial impairment of a contractual relationship, their claim under the Contracts Clause could not succeed because the order was a reasonable and appropriate way of advancing the significant goal of slowing the spread of COVID-19 in state prisons. Id. at *5.

The district court also stated that the Supreme Court has rejected the idea of a fundamental right to refuse vaccination. Id. at *6 (citing Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11, 26-27 (1905)). The court found that the vaccine requirement had a significant nexus to the employment of the Plaintiffs and applied a rational basis review. Id. at *6. The court found that the Executive Order is rationally related to the legitimate government interest in stemming the spread of COVID-19, and the vaccines are a safe and effective way to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Id. at *7. When balancing the economic impact on the plaintiffs if they choose not to be vaccinated against the legitimate public interest in preventing the spread of Covid-19, the court found that the public interest won the day. Id. at *8.

Need help trying to work through the legal ramifications of your vaccine mandate policy? Contact Charles Insler in our Employment & Labor Law practice group for expert help.

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Kerri Forsythe

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