By Jack Phillips
A New York state judge ruled Wednesday that 10 employees fired by the New York City Department of Education for refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine have to be reinstated with back pay.
In a win for opponents of vaccine mandates, State Supreme Court Judge Ralph J. Porzio found (pdf) that the city’s denials of religious exemptions to certain city teachers was unconstitutional, capricious, and arbitrary. In the case, principals, teachers, and other school workers filed a lawsuit sponsored by the anti-mandate Children’s Health Defense against the Department of Education after their attempts to claim a religious accommodation for the mandate were denied.
“This Court sees no rational basis for not allowing unvaccinated classroom teachers in amongst an admitted population of primarily unvaccinated students,” Judge Porzio wrote. “As such, the decision to summarily deny the classroom teachers amongst the Panel Petitioners based on an undue hardship, without any further evidence of individualized analysis, is arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable. As such, each classroom teacher amongst the Panel Petitioners is entitled to a religious exemption from the Vaccine Mandate.”
The judge also criticized the city’s assertion that allowing classroom teachers to get a religious exemption would place undue hardship on the city, calling the claim “arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable.”
In the order, he granted relief to 10 plaintiffs who completed the administrative steps to request an exemption. He denied relief to six plaintiffs because they did not complete the administrative process.
As part of his ruling, Judge Porzio made reference to Mayor Eric Adams’s lifting of a vaccine mandate for some private employees in 2022, notably celebrities and athletes. He said the decision was evidence that the mandate for public workers was done on an arbitrary basis.
New York City imposed a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all Department of Education workers that started on Oct. 1, 2021, and lasted until Feb. 10, 2023. Reports indicated that thousands of workers, teachers, and other staffers lost their jobs for not adhering to the mandate.
Other cities also imposed mandates on their workers throughout the pandemic. In late 2021, President Joe Biden announced that he would use the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to force private companies with 100 or more employees to require the vaccine, which was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court months later. However, mandates were imposed on federal employees and contractors for years.
An attorney for the New York plaintiffs, Sujata Gibson, told Children’s Health Defense that they have “been fighting for this since August of 2021 for these 10 people specifically. And we won and we won big for them,” adding, “They were reinstated with back pay, with no break in service, and attorneys’ fees. That’s huge.”
“The judge’s ruling yesterday, while not everything we wanted, is a precedent-setting victory, and a watershed moment in the teachers’ fight,” she added, noting that thousands of unvaccinated workers who were also denied a religious exemption could sue based on the new precedent.
The lawyer, meanwhile, suggested that another class action lawsuit may be filed in the future. “The court’s ruling on class certification still leaves the door open to future relief for thousands of teachers negatively affected by the vaccine requirement,” Ms. Gibson said. “We intend to file a motion of reconsideration on a narrower basis.”
The Epoch Times has contacted the New York City Department of Education for comment.
“Today’s ruling is bittersweet,” said Michael Kane, a New York teacher who lost his job. “While it’s an important step in the right direction, justice for only 10 of us doesn’t even scratch the surface of the injustice suffered by NYC workers as a result of this illegal mandate.”
It comes months after a lawyer for another group of fired, unvaccinated New York City teachers claimed that Mayor Eric Adams’s administration blacklisted employees who refused to get the vaccine with a special code.
“Loosely speaking, it is like a scarlet letter,” lawyer John Bursch told the New York Post earlier this year. “The employee’s personnel file shows a [generic] problem code that could just as easily be for committing a crime as declining to take a vaccine for religious reasons. In some instances, when plaintiffs tried to obtain employment elsewhere, they were told that they were red-flagged because of the problem code,” he said.
About 2,000 plaintiffs that he represented filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging religious discrimination for being fired for not receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.
Mr. Adams, a Democrat, lifted the vaccine mandate for workers earlier this year, allowing more than 1,700 fired workers to reapply for their jobs. However, they would not be get back pay or retroactive full benefits, according to the NY Post.