Fed Court: COVID Vax Challenge Should Stay in State Court

Frank Ferreri

Oklahoma City, OK (WorkersCompensation.com) – Vaccine mandates have a heavy federal law emphasis, particularly with the White House and executive agencies pushing rules requiring workers to get the jab.

However, as the court in Oklahoma v. Ascension Healthcare, No. 21-CV-488-TCK-SH (N.D. Okla. 11/23/21) spelled out, there are times when all that’s on the line implicates state law, and so state court should be where a case against a vaccine requirement gets decided, depending on the circumstances.

Religious Accommodation Denied

A hospital employee sought a religious accommodation exempting him from the hospital’s mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policy, which it implemented due to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ now-halted interim final rule direction health care employers to require vaccinations for their employees.

The hospital rejected the employee’s request, informing him, “Due to the nature of your role and working onsite as well as with patients, it would pose an undue hardship on the organization to grant your religious exemption request.”

The employee appealed the denial, but the hospital again denied his request, noting that the decision was driven by the “strong need” to protect the workforce and patients.

The state sued on the employee’s behalf, claiming that the hospital violated the Americans with Disabilities Act based on its perception that the employee would get COVID-19.

Initially, the state filed the claim in state court, but because the claim included allegations under federal law, including the ADA assertions, the hospital sought to have the case removed to federal court. In response, the state amended its complaint and dropped its federal charges.

Dropping Claims, Jurisdiction

Generally, lawsuits may be removed from state court to federal court if the federal court has jurisdiction over the claims. The question that arose in the state’s case against the hospital was whether the federal court had jurisdiction even after the state dropped the federal charges.

In this case, the court explained that once the federal claims had been eliminated, it was up to the court to decide whether it should accept or decline jurisdiction over the remaining state claims. The court pointed out that the determination was based on “economy, convenience, fairness, and comity,” and directed the state court to take the case.

The court noted that the case was still in its early stages and required interpretation of state law and allowing the state court to take it on would “merely effectuate [the state’s] original choice of a state forum” without raising concerns about so-called “forum shopping” for federal courts in search of a friendly outcome.