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Texas federal judge refuses to block United Airlines’ Covid-19 vaccine mandate

U.S. District Judge Mark Pittman was not persuaded that the loss of income from being put on unpaid leave constitutes irreparable harm necessary for a preliminary injunction against the policy.

FORT WORTH (CN) — A federal judge in Texas Monday night refused to block United Airlines’ Covid-19 vaccine mandate, concluding employees failed to show they faced “imminent, irreparable harm” if the policy is allowed to stand.

U.S. District Judge Mark Pittman in Fort Worth denied a motion for preliminary injunction filed by United employees based at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. They sued the Chicago-based airline in September for civil rights violations after it became the first major U.S. carrier to impose such a mandate. Under the policy, United offers unpaid leave for employees who are granted exemptions for religious or medical reasons. Employees who do not comply and who lack an exemption face the threat of termination, with United CEO Scott Kirby stating last month that 232 employees are to be fired for noncompliance.

United has argued none of the plaintiffs can claim disability discrimination because they do not have a disability as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In denying the motion, Pittman rejected the employees’ theory that either taking the vaccine in violation of their beliefs or going on unpaid leave would amount to an “impossible choice” and cause irreparable harm.

“United exempted plaintiffs from the mandate; plaintiffs are not required to violate their religious beliefs,” the 15-page opinion states. “United’s employees claimed they faced an impossible choice: get the vaccine or endure unpaid leave. But they have chosen the latter. Their dispute thus centers on United’s response to their choice.”

The judge further rejected the plaintiffs’ citation of a 1976 case before the U.S. Supreme Court that held the loss of First Amendment freedoms “unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury,” concluding the United workers did not assert any free speech violations in the their lawsuit.

“It is undisputed that United exempted plaintiffs from the vaccine mandate,” Pittman writes. “Plaintiffs, therefore, have not been denied the freedom to exercise their religious beliefs. Indeed, by declining to receive the vaccination, they have acted in accordance with their religious beliefs.”

The judge was not persuaded by the employees’ claim that loss of their income and benefits while on unpaid leave constitutes irreparable harm. He cited fellow U.S. District Judge Terry Means in Fort Worth, who ruled in 2006 that “loss of income, financial distress, or inability to find other employment” does not constitute the irreparable harm needed to issue a preliminary injunction.

Pittman said he does not want to seem “insensitive to plaintiffs’ plight,” that even a temporary loss of income may “quickly ripple out to touch” families and dependents.

“But the court’s analysis must be guided by the law, not by its sympathy,” the opinion states. “Despite the novel facts presented here, the case law is clear that hardships stemming from loss of income are remediable; axiomatically such hardships cannot be called irreparable.”

Attorneys for the plaintiffs did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday evening.

United said in a written statement that it was pleased with Judge Pittman’s ruling and is attempting to put exempt employees in “non-customer facing” roles. The airline has said unvaccinated workers are costing it almost $3 million each month to keep on the payroll.

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