In first federal ruling on vaccine mandates, judge sides with Houston hospital, dismissing claims from staff resisters

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HOUSTON, TEXAS - JUNE 09: The exterior of the Houston Methodist Hospital is seen on June 09, 2021 in Houston, Texas. Houston Methodist Hospital has suspended 178 employees without pay for 14 days for their refusal to comply with its COVID-19 vaccine requirement. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

HOUSTON – In the first federal ruling on vaccine mandates, a Houston judge has dismissed a lawsuit by hospital employees who declined the COVID-19 shot – a decision that could have a ripple effect across the nation.

The case involved Houston Methodist, which was the first hospital system in the country to require that all its employees get vaccinated. U.S. District Judge Lynn N. Hughes ruled Saturday that federal law does not prevent employers from issuing that mandate.

After months of warnings, Houston Methodist had put more than 170 of its 26,000 employees on unpaid suspension Monday. They were told they would be fired it they weren't vaccinated by June 21.

The hospital had made it clear it meant what it said: It fired the director of corporate risk – Bob Nevens – and another manager in April when they did not meet the earlier deadline for bosses.

In recent weeks, a few other major hospitals have followed Houston Methodist's lead, including the University of Pennsylvania, University of Louisville, New York Presbyterian and several major hospitals in the Washington, D.C., area.

Houston Methodist's CEO Marc Boom predicts more hospitals soon will enact vaccine mandates. Many hospitals and employers were waiting for legal clarification before acting.

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“We can now put this behind us and continue our focus on unparalleled safety, quality, service and innovation," Boom said after the ruling. "Our employees and physicians made their decisions for our patients, who are always at the center of everything we do."

The lawsuit was filed by 117 workers led by Jennifer Bridges, a nurse at Houston Methodist's Baytown hospital who declined the vaccine because she considers it experimental and dangerous. The judge disagreed, writing: "This claim is false, and it is also irrelevant."

Learning of the dismissal from USA TODAY, Bridges vowed not to give up. She has initiated a change.org petition that as of Saturday had drawn more than 9,000 signatures and a GoFundMe to pay for the lawsuit that has raised $130,000.

"This doesn't surprise me," she said. "Methodist is a very large company, and they are pretty well-protected in a lot of areas. We knew this was going to be a huge fight, and we are prepared to fight it."

The lawsuit claimed federal law prohibits employees from being required to get vaccinated without full U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval of the vaccines. The FDA has authorized the Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines under a special provision for emergencies.

The judge dismissed that argument as well, saying that law does not apply to private employers. He also dismissed an argument that anyone who gets the vaccine is effectively a human subject in an experimental trial. 

"The hospital's employees are not participants in a human trial," he wrote. "They are licensed doctors, nurses, medical technician, and staff members. The hospital has not applied to test the COVID-19 vaccines on its employees."

The lawsuit was filed in Texas state court but was moved to federal court at Houston Methodist's request. The federal judge ruled Saturday that Texas state law protects workers from being fired only if they are forced to commit a crime.

David Heath is a reporter on the USA TODAY national investigations team. Contact him at dheath@usatoday.com or @davidhth, or on Signal at (240) 630-1962.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lawsuit from vaccine resisters at Houston hospital dismissed by judge