by W. Anthony Andrews
Recently, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals injected new life into Governor Pritzker’s COVID-19 vaccination mandates in ruling on three consolidated cases. Indeed, with its ruling in Troogstad v. City of Chicago, the Seventh Circuit has signaled COVID-19 vaccination challenges are either moot or substantively meritless.
Each of the three cases share a similar fact pattern. Either by way of Executive Order 2021-22 or local directives, employees were required by their employers to either become vaccinated or test weekly for COVID-19. Failure to comply could result in employees being barred from the premises.
In Halgren v. City of Naperville, for instance, employees of the Naperville Fire Department challenged its Special Directive #21-01, which required emergency medical technicians and firefighters to show proof of vaccination or test weekly. The plaintiffs claimed that the Special Directive violated their rights to privacy and bodily autonomy as matters of substantive due process, procedural due process, and equal protection.
So too in Troogstad, where employees of the City of Chicago challenged the City of Chicago Vaccination Policy, which required all City employees to be vaccinated by the end of 2021 or undergo testing twice weekly as a condition of their employment. The Troogstad employees also alleged violations of their rights to bodily autonomy as matters of substantive due process, procedural due process, the free exercise of religion, and the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act.
Lukaszczyk v. Cook County shared similar facts. They challenged a Cook County Health vaccination policy which required all personnel to be fully vaccinated by September 30, 2021, as a condition of employment.
The Seventh Circuit found that all three cases were unlikely to succeed on the merits. The plaintiffs’ various substantive due process claims were faulty because their governmental employers had a rational basis for mandating COVID-19 vaccinations or testing regimes. The government employers had successfully introduced evidence that vaccines reduce the rate of transmission of COVID-19. This alone provided a rational basis for the mandates that plaintiffs are unlikely to overcome.
The court also rejected the Troogstad and Lukaszczyk plaintiffs’ claims that Governor Pritzker exceeded his authority under the Emergency Management Agency Act. In fact, Governor Pritzker was immune from suit thanks to the Eleventh Amendment, which prohibits federal courts from issuing relief for state officials’ actions on the basis of state law.
The Troogstad and Lukaszczyk plaintiffs also claimed that the vaccine mandates burdened their First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion and violated their rights under the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act (“HCRCA”). The court, however, rejected those contentions. The HCRCA states, in part, that it is unlawful for a public official to discriminate against an individual for refusing health care services contrary to their conscience, referring to their moral convictions arising from a belief in God or something parallel. Yet, the vaccine mandates provide for religious exemptions and the plaintiffs had no evidence that they were wrongfully denied such exemptions under the local mandates. These claims against the Governor’s 2021 Order were either moot or barred by the Eleventh Amendment.
In sum, the Seventh Circuit found that the State and local mandates still in effect could continue to be enforced pending further litigation. While this was an initial victory for the governmental bodies with mandates, the ultimate outcome of each case is yet to be resolved. But given the Seventh Circuit’s ruling, it appears unlikely that plaintiffs will prevail on COVID-19 vaccination mandate challenges in the future.