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In Hayes v. University Health Shreveport, LLC, 2022 WL 71607 (La. Jan. 7, 2022), the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that a hospital – or any other private employer – may impose an absolute vaccination requirement and fire any employee who fails to comply. The case involved medical centers that notified all employees that they were required to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 by October 29, 2021. Employees not vaccinated by the specific time were subject to disciplinary action, including mandatory use of leave time and, ultimately, termination. This policy permitted exceptions to the vaccine mandate if there were valid religious and medical reasons. Thirty-nine employees subsequently filed a lawsuit seeking injunctive relief and a declaratory judgment that the vaccination mandate was unlawful.

In the eyes of the Louisiana Supreme Court, the issue was a simple one because the plaintiffs were at-will employees. That means that an employer is at liberty to dismiss an at-will employee and, reciprocally, an at-will employee is at liberty to leave the employment and seek other opportunities. So, while you might think that the vaccine mandate by a medical employer is especially necessary and appropriate, that fact actually hardly matters in this case.

To be sure, at-will employment rights are tempered by federal and state provisions, both constitutional and statutory. For example, an employer cannot engage in racial discrimination against at-will employees. Be that as it may, none of those limitations helped the anti-vaxxer employees in the Hayes case. The plaintiffs’ constitutional arguments were premised on a right to refuse medical treatment and a right to privacy. But both of those rights under Louisiana law are triggered by governmental action. Here, the employer was a private, nongovernmental entity.

As far as we can tell, Hayes is the first Covid state supreme court decision on this point. The outcome seems clear and decisive. But to get to that outcome, the Louisiana Supreme Court had to reverse a rogue appellate court decision. The trial court in Hayes had ruled in favor of the employers. But the Court of Appeal reversed, holding that termination of employment, notwithstanding the at-will employment doctrine, would have unlawfully abridged the employees’ constitutional rights. The Court of Appeal remanded to the trial court with instructions to enter a temporary restraining order against the vaccination requirement. The employer then filed a writ application with the Louisiana Supreme Court, requesting that the Court of Appeal’s decision be stayed. The Supreme Court granted the stay, and then reached its decision on the merits, reversing the Court of Appeal. The trial court’s ruling was reinstated, meaning that the employees’ action was dismissed and the employer was entitled to terminate employees for failure to comply with the vaccine mandate.