We take a break from assembling Halloween costumes for the Drug and Device Law Little Rescue dogs – a UPS worker, complete with cardboard parcel, and Batwoman – for another great decision involving a plaintiff’s opposition to a vaccine mandate. A number of recent blogposts have reported unsuccessful efforts by anti-vaxxers to enlist judicial support for their positions. Several of those posts – here and here, for example – have reported decisions upholding public colleges’ rights to impose vaccine requirements. And while we continue to roll our eyes at lawsuits targeting efforts to protect students and stem COVID-19’s public health consequences, we remain heartened at the results of those lawsuits. Today’s case, Beck v. Williamson College of the Trades, No. CV-2021-007215, 2021 WL 4667121, slip op. (Pa. C.P. Delaware County, Sept. 14, 2021), involves a private college’s right to enforce a vaccine mandate. Once again, law and logic prevail over lunacy, in a trumped-up (pun intentional) preliminary injunction action quickly kicked to the curb by a cynical Pennsylvania trial court with a knack for sound bites.
In Beck, the defendant was a small, private, post-secondary trade school that requires all students to be vaccinated against COVID, and the plaintiff was a rising third-year student at the school. The school permitted anti-vax students to request an exemption from the vaccine requirement, but the exemptions were deliberately narrow in light of the “facially neutral” vaccine policy and the “small congregate setting” of the school. On May 9, 2021, the plaintiff applied for an exemption, asking the defendant to “accommodate what he presented as a sincerely held religious belief that the COVID-19 vaccine was developed from aborted fetal cell lines and, as such, obtaining the vaccine would violate the teachings of his Catholic faith.” Beck, p. 4. (Notably, the plaintiff did not argue that the Catholic faith prohibited COVID vaccination. He couldn’t: as we have pointed out in these pages, the Pope is vaccinated and has urged church members to follow suit.) On May 18, 2021, the school rejected the exemption request. Months later, one week before classes were scheduled to start, the plaintiff moved for a preliminary injunction, alleging religious discrimination and “wrongful expulsion” under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (“PHRA”) and the Pennsylvania Fair Opportunities Act (“PFEOA”).
In opposition, the defendant argued that the plaintiff had failed “to satisfy at least one, if not several, of the six prongs a movant must establish before an injunction may issue.” Id. at 5. As the court pointed out, “for a preliminary injunction to issue, every one of the six prerequisites must be established, and if the petitioner has failed to establish any one of them, there is no need for the court to address the others.” Id. at 5-6 (citations omitted).
First, the court held, the plaintiff’s right to relief was not clear, and, as such, he was not likely to prevail on the merits of his claims. He had not exhausted his administrative remedies, although he was aware, by soon after his exemption request was denied, that both the PHRA and the PFEOA required him to file an action with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission before instituting a civil suit. He argued that “the slow progress of administrative proceedings would result in irreparable harm – the inability for [him] to return to school for his senior year” if the proceedings were not resolved in time for him to start school. Id. at 7 (internal punctuation and citation omitted).
The court wasn’t buying it, citing a string of cases holding that postponement of education does not give rise to irreparable harm. Moreover, to be deemed irreparable, harm must be irreversible. Because the plaintiff could return to complete his education whenever he saw the light and got vaccinated, the harm was not “irreversible.” In addition, as the court pointed out, the plaintiff could have initiated the administrative process months earlier but elected not to do so. The court held that neither the statutes nor the case law interpreting them “support[ed] a litigant’s right to forum shop in the way that [the plaintiff] appear[ed] to do in this case.” Id. at 8.
The plaintiff’s right to relief on his religious discrimination claim was unclear for other reasons as well. To prevail on such a claim, as the court explained, a plaintiff must establish both that the belief he invokes is “sincerely held and religious” and that “the non-discriminatory reason for [the defendant’s adverse action against him is a pretext for intentional discrimination against him.” Id. at 8-9. Pointing out that the plaintiff’s credibility was central to his claims, the Court “question[ed] the sincerity of [the plaintiff’s] belief that agreeing to receive the COVID-19 vaccine [would] compromise his ability to act in a way consistent with his Catholic faith.” This was because, within the previous two years, the plaintiff “had obtained vaccines whose origins he knew to be similar to the origins of the COVID-19 vaccine.” Id. at 9. The court saw through all of it, commenting, although the plaintiff asserted that he “[did] not challenge the sheer irrationality of the nationwide campaign of vaccine coercion,” his brief included a “page-and-a-half-long diatribe that, inter alia, question[ed] the legitimacy and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines and contend[ed] that restrictions on ‘basic human freedoms’ [were] smokescreens for government pressures and coercion.” The court concluded, . . . “[T]he context Beck himself provides . . . informs the sincerity—or lack thereof—of the professed ‘religious’ objection to the COVID-19 vaccine.” Id. at 9-10.
Moreover, even if the plaintiff’s objection to the vaccine were based on a sincerely-held religious belief, the school offered a lawful, non-discriminatory reason for its policy, and there was no evidence that its reasons for denying the plaintiff’s discrimination request was a pretext for religious discrimination. As the court pointed out, “[a]ny restriction imposed by a public accommodation could infringe on a person’s religious beliefs, and the fact that a proprietor has decided to offer services in a manner that may impact a religious belief raises no inference of discrimination.” While the plaintiff argued that “the sole reason he had been expelled from the school [was] that [school officials had] decreed Catholics, Methodists and Muslims must be vaccinated, while Baptists need not be,” the court emphasized that there was “no such ‘decree’” and the plaintiff had not been “expelled.” The court concluded that, despite the plaintiff’s “argumentative hyperbole unsupported by facts,” there was “insufficient—if any—evidence to support a reasonable inference” that the school acted with unlawful discriminatory intent.” Id. at 12.
The plaintiff also did not establish that he would suffer irreparable harm without the injunction. The court held, “Separate apart from [the plaintiff’s] intentional sidestepping” of the requirement that he exhaust his administrative remedies, he “manufactured an emergency by delaying the filing of his Petition until the last possible minute. Delay in seeking injunctive relief negates the immediacy of the alleged irreparable harm.” Id. at 13.
The plaintiff’s “wrongful expulsion” claim fared no better than his religious discrimination claim. There was no evidence that the plaintiff had been expelled; to the contrary, there was evidence that the school would allow the plaintiff to return in the future to complete his education. As such, the plaintiff did not establish a “clear right to relief” on this claim, either. The court concluded that the plaintiff had “failed to carry his heavy burden on several of the six prerequisite criteria” for an injunction. Petition denied.
Needless to say, we love this opinion. We have no patience for anti-vaxxers, we are offended by unfounded claims of religious discrimination, and we love a judge who is just as snarky and unfiltered as we are. We will continue to report decisions on cases challenging vaccine mandates, and we hope they continue to fall on the correct side of the scale. In the meantime, stay safe out there, and have a great Halloween weekend.