On October 19, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed the denial of a motion for preliminary injunction that sought to prevent enforcement of Maine’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate. Does 1-6 v. Mills, No. 21-1826, 2021 WL 4860328, at *1 (1st Cir. Oct. 19, 2021). (The First Circuit opinion is available here.)
The state of Maine has long required that healthcare workers be vaccinated against infectious diseases. Id. And in doing so, Maine “has not allowed religious or philosophical exemptions to any of its vaccination requirements since an amendment to state law in May 2019 (which took effect in April 2020).” Id. (emphasis added). On August 12, 2021, faced with “COVID-19’s virulent delta variant and vaccination rates among healthcare workers too low to prevent community transmission,” Maine’s Center for Disease Control promulgated a regulation that required all workers in licensed healthcare facilities to be vaccinated against the virus. Id. In keeping with Maine law, the regulation did not allow for religious exemptions; the only accepted exemption was if vaccination was deemed “medically inadvisable” by a medical practitioner. Id.
Several Maine healthcare workers (and a healthcare provider who runs his own practice) sued the state, seeking to enjoin the regulation from going into effect. Id. The plaintiffs argued that the vaccination requirement violated their constitutional rights. Id. In particular, the plaintiffs asserted violations of the Free Exercise Clause, Supremacy Clause, Equal Protection Clause, and 42 U.S.C. § 1985. Id. They also asserted claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and 42 U.S.C. § 1985. Id.
On October 13, 2021, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine denied the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction. Does 1-6 v. Mills, No. 1:21-CV-00242-JDL, 2021 WL 4783626, at *18 (D. Me. Oct. 13, 2021). (The District Court opinion is available here.)
After an extremely expedited briefing, the First Circuit affirmed. In so doing, the First Circuit held that Maine’s vaccination requirement was subject to rational basis review, and that the vaccine mandate “easily satisfies rational basis review.” Does 1-6, 2021 WL 4860328, at *6-7. In so holding, the First Circuit noted Maine’s aging population, the limited size of its healthcare workforce, and a series of outbreaks at healthcare facilities. Does 1-6, 2021 WL 4860328, at *2-3. The plaintiffs were not likely to succeed on their constitutional claims. Id. at *7. The First Circuit also found that plaintiffs were unlikely to prevail on their Title VII claims, because money damages would be an appropriate remedy and because plaintiffs had not exhausted their administrative remedies. Id. at *10.
After the First Circuit’s ruling, the plaintiffs sought a stay of the ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court. The plaintiffs have also noted their intention to seek certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court.