Louisiana Supreme Court upholds vaccine mandate for healthcare workers

·3 min read

Ochsner Health System can require employees to get a COVID-19 vaccine or face firing, the Louisiana Supreme Court unanimously ruled Friday.

The ruling, written by Chief Justice John L. Weimer, of Thibodaux, upheld Ochsner’s right to mandate the vaccine for employees who did not qualify for religious or medical exemptions.

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“This matter is resolved by the application of the employment-at-will doctrine…This provision has been uniformly held to reflect employment at will—which means an employer is at liberty to dismiss an at-will employee and, reciprocally, the employee is at liberty to leave the employment to seek other opportunities,” Weimer wrote in the court's opinion.

Chief Justice John L. Weimer, left, speaks to attorneys during a hearing of the Louisiana Supreme Court on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021.
Chief Justice John L. Weimer, left, speaks to attorneys during a hearing of the Louisiana Supreme Court on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021.

“However, these rights are tempered by federal and state provisions, both statutory and constitutional, but no such exceptions apply here.”

Weimer’s opinion was unanimously supported by the court’s six associate justices, who did not file concurring or dissenting opinions.

The ruling comes after dozens of Ochsner employees in Lafayette and Shreveport sued the hospital system in September when it announced plans to require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Those suits were thrown out of trial courts, but reached the state Supreme Court in December, where a majority of justices who spoke during the case’s arguments questioned the employees’ right to sue their private employer over the vaccine mandate.

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During arguments before the state Supreme Court on Dec. 7, Alexandria attorney Jimmy Faircloth, who represented the Ochsner employees, argued the vaccine mandate overstepped the state’s at-will employment laws by forcing employers to accept medical treatment they did not consent to.

Attorney Jimmy Faircloth argues Ochsner's COVID-19 vaccine mandate violates employees' rights during a hearing of the Louisiana Supreme Court on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021.
Attorney Jimmy Faircloth argues Ochsner's COVID-19 vaccine mandate violates employees' rights during a hearing of the Louisiana Supreme Court on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021.

Lafayette attorney Jim Gibson, representing Ochsner, argued the employees were free to find work elsewhere if they objected to getting the vaccines. Gibson’s argument was echoed by Weimer during the Dec. 7 hearing while he questioned Faircloth’s assertions.

“(Employees are) given an option, are they not? They’re being given an option to be vaccinated or not,” Weimer asked.

See the arguments: Louisiana Supreme Court hears arguments on Ochsner’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate

“Then they have a choice to make. As we say often in criminal law, a hard choice is still a choice.”

Attorney Jim Gibson argues that Ochsner employees who don't want a COVID-19 vaccine can find work elsewhere during a hearing of the Louisiana Supreme Court on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021.
Attorney Jim Gibson argues that Ochsner employees who don't want a COVID-19 vaccine can find work elsewhere during a hearing of the Louisiana Supreme Court on Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021.

In early December, Ochsner announced that 280 employees were let go for not complying with the COVID-19 vaccine mandate, though that excluded employees in Shreveport who were protected by a court order pending the state Supreme Court decision.

From December: Amid court challenges, just 1% of impacted Ochsner staff rebuffs vax mandate

By the time the state Supreme Court heard arguments in the case on Dec. 7, just two or three remaining employees had not gotten the shot or been granted an exemption, according to Faircloth, who represented Ochsner employees in the case.

Ochsner Health President and CEO Warner Thomas issued a statement Friday in support of the court's ruling.

"We are pleased with the unanimous decision today from the Louisiana Supreme Court upholding the legality of Ochsner Health’s vaccination requirement," he said.

"Ochsner Health remains committed to protecting the health and safety of our patients, team members and everyone across the communities we serve, and this decision supports our right to enact policies that protect patients and staff at our facilities across Louisiana."

In a statement Friday, Faircloth said the next still will be to lobby the state Legislature to prohibit similar mandates in the future.

"Some fights are worth it,” Faircloth said. “Our clients have always understood that the issue was bound for the legislature.... There will be no shortage of co-authors for an Individual Medical Rights Act in the upcoming session. This fight is far from over."

Follow Andrew Capps on Twitter or send an email to acapps@theadvertiser.com.

This article originally appeared on Lafayette Daily Advertiser: Louisiana Supreme Court upholds vaccine mandate for healthcare workers

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