A federal appeals court on Thursday ordered further review of United Airlines’ coronavirus vaccine mandate, calling it “coercive” and reversing a lower court ruling.
A three-judge panel in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled 2-1 to return the issue to District Judge Mark Pittman, who previously rejected employees’ request for a preliminary junction. In his opinion, Pittman was sympathetic to employees but said he was bound by court precedent, and he declined the request because employees could not prove “irreparable harm,” one of four variables which need to be satisfied in court in order for a judge to issue an injunction and preserve the “status quo” during litigation. Federal Judges Andy Oldham and Jennifer Elrod reversed Pittman’s ruling, pointing to the “rather unique” nature of the case.
“Plaintiffs allege a harm that is ongoing and cannot be remedied later: they are actively being coerced to violate their religious convictions. Because that harm is irreparable, we reverse the district court,” Oldham, a President Donald Trump appointee, and Elrod, a George W. Bush appointee, wrote in their opinion.
The panel heard arguments in the case in early January. The Fifth Circuit, which is widely considered the most conservative appeals court, initially rejected an emergency request to halt the mandate in mid-December, but granted a motion to expedite an appeal in the case after Pittman’s decision to refuse the injunction in November 2021.
United Airlines is estimated to have placed around 2,000 employees who were granted religious or medical exemptions on unpaid leave for foregoing vaccination — a measure the company argued is a reasonable accommodation to its policy. Those employees have also been stripped of their health benefits and many are the subject of a non-compete clause. The lawsuit, which was originally filed by six United Airlines employees in September of 2021, alleges that the company violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by discriminating against them based on their religious beliefs and medical conditions.
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