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Court Declined To Enjoin Termination Of Firefighters Who Didn’t Abide By COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate
On August 18, 2021, the Los Angeles City Council adopted Ordinance No. 187134, requiring all current and future City of Los Angeles (City) employees to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 by October 19, 2021, or request an exemption to the vaccine mandate based on a sincerely held religious belief or individual medical condition.
On September 24, 2021, the Los Angeles Fire Department (Department) emailed all employees to notify them to report their vaccination status in compliance with the City’s vaccine mandate. On October 14, 2021, the City issued a “Last, Best, and Final Offer” regarding any non-compliance. This offer gave City employees who failed to timely comply with the vaccine requirement, and who were not seeking a medical or religious exemption, to comply by December 18, 2021, if they agreed to certain conditions, including bi-weekly testing at their own expense. Any employees who failed to show proof of vaccination by the new deadline would be subject to corrective action – involuntary separation from City employment, including placement on unpaid leave pending a Skelly conference on the proposed separation.
In response, the Firefighters4Freedom Foundation (the Foundation) filed a lawsuit against the City. The Foundation is a non-profit organization representing firefighters who were placed on administrative leave for failing to comply with the vaccine mandate or to seek an exemption. The Foundation alleged that the City’s actions violated the firefighters’ privacy and due process rights, among other claims.
On November 16, 2021, the Foundation moved for a preliminary injunction to bar the City from terminating or placing any City firefighter on unpaid leave for non-compliance with the City’s vaccination mandate without first providing due process, including the right to a hearing before an impartial hearing officer under the Firefighters Procedural Bill of Rights Act (FBOR).
In order to determine whether to issue a preliminary injunction, the trial court assessed: (i) the likelihood that the firefighters would prevail on the merits of their claims at trial; and (ii) the interim harm that the firefighters were likely to sustain if the injunction was denied as compared to the harm that the City was likely to incur if the preliminary injunction was issued. The trial court denied the motion, finding that the Foundation had not satisfied its burden of proof as to either factor.
The court found that the Foundation was unlikely to prevail on the merits of its claims at trial. The Foundation had not shown a due process violation because the firefighters had ample notice of the vaccine mandate and were placed on unpaid leave pending a Skelly meeting before their termination. The court found that this constituted adequate due process, particularly given the emergency COVID-19 created.
The court also found that the Foundation could not present sufficient evidence that the City Council abused its discretion in passing the vaccination mandate. The Foundation alleged that the City did not have sufficient evidence to declare a state of emergency due to COVID-19. The Court disagreed, citing in part evidence of how COVID-19 outbreaks in fire stations to upend daily life and threaten public safety.
The Foundation failed to show a violation of the unvaccinated firefighters’ privacy rights. Supervening public concerns – namely, the City’s goal to protect the City’s workforce and the public it serves from COVID-19 – clearly outweighed the firefighters’ privacy rights. The court also noted that none of the Foundation-represented firefighters had sought a religious or medical exemption.
Lastly, the trial court found that the balance of harm weighed “overwhelmingly” against granting an injunction. The court acknowledged that while individual firefighters who were on unpaid leave incurred a “severe harm,” the COVID-19 deaths significantly outweighed that monetary loss. The trial court acknowledged that there have been 1,477,842 COVID-19 cases and 26,001 COVID-19 deaths to date in Los Angeles County, excluding cases and deaths in the cities of Long Beach and Pasadena. Based on the foregoing, the court denied the Foundation’s motion for a preliminary injunction.
Firefighters4Freedom Foundation v. City of Los Angeles, Case No. 21STCV34490 (Super. Ct. Cal. Dec. 21, 2021).
Because this is a trial court decision, it is not binding legal precedent on any parties other than the City of Los Angeles and its firefighters. This decision does show how a court may rule on challenges to COVID-19 vaccine mandates. LCW attorneys monitor all vaccination decisions applicable to California employers and will provide an update on developments.