LOS ANGELES (CN) — Los Angeles need not reinstate pay for firefighters who are awaiting termination proceedings for refusing to comply with the city's vaccine mandate, a judge ruled Monday.
"I don't want to minimize the harm to a firefighter put on unpaid leave," Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Michael Linfield said at hearing Monday. "It is certainly a severe harm. But it’s dwarfed by the death of a person due to Covid. We can reimburse someone for monetary losses caused by being put on unpaid leave. We cannot resurrect the dead."
The lawsuit, brought about by Firefighters4Freedom, a nonprofit representing 105 LA firefighters, is just one of many suits aimed at overturning various vaccine mandates wending through the courts. The firefighters union, UFLAC, has also sued, as have LA County firefighters and LA's police union. The Los Angeles Unified School District's vaccine mandate has also been challenged by parents and activists.
None of the lawsuits have succeeded in stopping the laws yet, although on Monday a judge struck down the San Diego Unified School district's vaccine mandate. San Diego County Superior Court Judge John Meyer found such a mandate to be the purview of the Legislature, not a school board.
Though the Firefighters4Freedom suit seeks to overturn the mandate, its motion for a preliminary injunction aimed lower: asking the court simply to restore pay for the 105 firefighters who have been placed on unpaid leave while they await termination hearings. Those firefighters have not requested a medical or personal belief exemption. Instead, they cite a right of medical freedom as the reason they refuse to be vaccinated against the novel coronavirus.
"We are not asking the city to stop enforcing this mandate," the firefighters' attorney Scott Street said. "We’re not asking for any firefighters to be put back on duty. All our clients are asking for today is, pay us while you try to fire us."
Appearing unmoved, Judge Linfield asked Street if doing so wouldn't encourage more firefighters to defy the vaccine mandate.
"They may do that," said Street. "These are firefighters — the people we ask to run into burning buildings. They are the first responders. They have served the city admirably during the pandemic. They would like to be on duty. What they really need is their livelihood, their paycheck. The thing they have been guaranteed under law. That’s the minimum they need."
Deputy City Attorney Jennifer Gregg said the "city lacks the funds to pay employees on leave while simultaneously paying overtime to cover the employees that are missing."
In his tentative ruling, Linfield took the plaintiffs to task for what he called "hyperbole" in their civil complaint, which included such statements as: "Though nobody knew it at the time, the Covid-19 pandemic would lead to the greatest restrictions on liberty in American history."
"This assertion by counsel is just plain wrong," Linfield wrote. "While Covid restrictions might impinge on the liberty of Americans, they pale in comparison to the enslavement of tens of millions of African Americans, the murder and forced relocation of millions of Native Americans, and the imprisonment of more than 115,000 Japanese Americans during World War II."
As to the preliminary injunction, the judge said he would take the matter under submission and issue a final ruling within 24 hours.
After the hearing, firefighter John Knox, a Firefighters4Freedom board member, acknowledged the tentative ruling "wasn't favorable" but said he would await the final ruling. Asked why he wouldn't just apply for a medical or personal belief exemption, he replied, "I have been granted my rights by God and they’re protected by the Constitution."
He added: "My body, my choice, right?"
The judge did make one small concession to plaintiffs, granting their motion to have Robert F. Kennedy Jr. — one of the more prominent voices in the anti-vaccine movement — appear as co-counsel in future proceedings. Kennedy's organization, Children's Health Defense, brought the lawsuit challenging LA Unified's student vaccine mandate.
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