5th Circuit Rejects Request from United Airlines Employees to Block Company’s COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate
In a decision from the New Orleans-based Fifth Circuit, in a bid to block the company’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, a divided court rejected an emergency request for an injunction from United Airlines employees. The request came in the wake of a November ruling by a federal judge in Fort Worth, Texas, which also ruled in favor of United Airlines.
United Airlines was the first major air carrier to implement a vaccine mandate and has so far granted about 2,000 exemptions. Its policy would place on unpaid leave any employees who fail to get the COVID-19 vaccine (and who fail to qualify for an exemption). The key question, in this case, is the extent to which United Airlines has accommodated employees’ religious or medical exemptions. The six plaintiffs claim that United Airlines’ policy is a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which, among other things, requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for all aspects of an employee’s religious beliefs, absent “undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”
While the Fifth Circuit did not rule on the merits, two of the three judges denied the motion for an injunction citing previous decisions but did not offer any additional reasoning. Judge James C. Ho dissented asserting that the mandate placed a substantial burden on one’s religion and calling the harm a “quintessentially irreparable injury, warranting preliminary injunctive relief.” The Fifth Circuit did, however, grant a request from the plaintiffs for an expedited appeal. That hearing and the court’s decision should provide some guidance on the legal constraints and guidelines for COVID-19 vaccine mandates.