Federal Judge Declines to Block Vaccine Mandate for Feds

President Biden speaks about COVID-19 vaccinations after touring a Clayco Corporation construction site for a Microsoft data center in Elk Grove Village, Ill., on Oct. 7.

President Biden speaks about COVID-19 vaccinations after touring a Clayco Corporation construction site for a Microsoft data center in Elk Grove Village, Ill., on Oct. 7. Susan Walsh / AP

Judge says the challenge is both premature and unlikely to supersede the public interest in ending the pandemic.

A federal judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Monday opted not to block the Biden administration’s mandate that all federal employees and contractors be vaccinated against COVID-19, concluding that the 20 federal workers and military service members who brought the case have failed to meet any of the circumstances that allow for the issuance of an injunction.

In a 41-page decision, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly wrote that the group, composed of 18 civilian employees and two members of the U.S. Marine Corps, did not prove that it was likely to prevail in the case, brought the case prematurely, and any potential personal injury did not outweigh the government’s interest in curbing the spread of COVID-19 in the federal workforce.

The 20 plaintiffs had argued that the vaccine mandate violated their First and Fifth Amendment rights as devout Christians whose beliefs “allegedly compel abstention” from getting vaccinated against COVID-19, the judge said. But Kollar-Kotelly wrote that the case was not ripe for the judicial branch to intervene, noting that nearly all of the federal workers still had religious exemption requests pending before their employer.

As of Monday, one of the federal employee plaintiffs’ exemption requests had been granted by the State Department, while one of the U.S. Marines’ exemption was denied, but that service member’s appeal was pending before the Marine Corps commandant.

“While the federal employee plaintiffs’ exemption requests are pending, they are not required to be vaccinated and they are not subject to discipline,” Kollar-Kotelly wrote. “And, in the event their exemption requests are ultimately approved, they would not have to be vaccinated against COVID-19, meaning the injuries alleged in this case would never occur. Moreover, as defendants note, there is no basis on the current record to assume that the federal employee plaintiffs’ exemption requests will be denied. [One of the plaintiffs’] exemption requests, for example, was granted.”

In order for a judge to grant a request to preemptively block government action like the implementation of a vaccine mandate, the plaintiffs also must prove irreparable harm if an injunction or restraining order is not granted. But Kollar-Kotelly wrote that in most instances, adverse personnel actions like discipline or termination do not qualify as irreparable harm.

“Here, the federal employee plaintiffs have not demonstrated any ‘extraordinary circumstances’ that would render their putative employment-based injuries ‘irreparable,’” she wrote. “While these plaintiffs colorfully label their potential adverse employment actions as ‘imminent,’ ‘severe,’ and ‘life-altering,’ none of the federal employee plaintiffs have offered an explanation regarding the specific adverse employment actions they actually face . . . Even if a federal employee plaintiff did ultimately face employment discipline, these plaintiffs provide no arguments as to why such adverse action could not be adequately remedied through more traditional relief, such as back-pay or reinstatement.”

And ultimately, Kollar-Kotelly wrote, the plaintiffs failed to prove that their potential discipline—if their exemption requests are denied—is a harm that outweighs the public interest in ending the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Plaintiffs’ claimed interests fare no better when compared to the public’s interest in the efficient administration of the federal government and public health more broadly,” she wrote. “Enjoining the federal employee vaccine mandate could risk sickening swathes of the civil service, prolonging remote work, impeding public access to government benefits and records, and slowing governmental programs. Civilian employees who continue to telework do not live in a vacuum. Enjoining the mandatory vaccination requirements of Executive Order 14043 risks not only the health of federal agency employees, but also the health of those around them.”

Monday marked the final day for federal employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine—or the second shot for Pfizer and Moderna vaccines—in order to be fully vaccinated by Biden’s Nov. 22 deadline, or to request a religious or medical exemption from their agencies.