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Hospital’s Vaccine Exemption Denial Survives Appellate Test (1)

June 24, 2022, 12:23 PMUpdated: June 24, 2022, 3:54 PM

A federal appeals court in Chicago rejected an Indiana doctor’s bid for an immediate court order to block a health-care system from requiring that workers get vaccinated against Covid-19 despite religious objections.

Paul Halczenko’s claim that not practicing medicine would lead to a deterioration of skills and the loss of his career were too speculative to qualify as an irreparable harm, which is necessary to win a preliminary injunction against Ascension Health Inc., the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled Thursday.

“Speculation about how his skills may deteriorate during the pendency of the litigation is insufficient, especially when Dr. Halczenko’s contention comes without regard to his extensive training and past experience or an explanation for why a training course or two would fail to position him to resume active practice in a pediatric ICU,” the court said.

Ascension St. Vincent Hospital denied Halczenko’s request for a religious exemption from its vaccine mandate. The hospital suspended and then fired the doctor after he refused to get inoculated.

The Seventh Circuit’s ruling bolsters the legal barriers protecting private employers from court orders requiring them to reinstate employees who had been fired or suspended after their Covid-19 vaccine mandate exemption requests were denied.

Workers must clear a high bar to establish that the alleged discrimination they suffered created irreparable harm meriting a preliminary injunction. That’s a difficult standard to meet in part because of the range of remedies available under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which include reinstatement, back pay, and compensatory damages.

Halczenko tried to win an injunction by emphasizing urgency, arguing that his skills would erode so swiftly that in six months he wouldn’t be able to work as a pediatric critical care physician.

“We cannot discern why Dr. Halczenko seemed to chisel a specific date into stone,” the Seventh Circuit said, noting that oral arguments were held two weeks after the doctor’s self-imposed six-month deadline.

Anti-Religious Animus?

The Seventh Circuit panel—all of whom were appointed by President Donald Trump—distinguished Halczenko’s case from a Fifth Circuit decision that gave workers suing United Airlines Inc. a second chance at winning an injunction over the airline’s now-defunct policy of putting religious vaccine objectors on unpaid leave.

The Fifth Circuit said those workers were suffering an ongoing harm by being put on leave, which is different from Halczenko’s situation because he was fired, the Seventh Circuit noted.

The three-judge panel also cast doubt on Halczenko’s claim that Ascension’s actions were motivated by an animus towards religion, despite the hospital accommodating about 300 workers who applied for religious exemptions.

“That it chose not to do so for Dr. Halczenko raises questions about the reasons for the differential treatment,” Judge Michael Scudder wrote for the panel. “But it does not suggest an institutional hostility towards religion—at least not on the record before us.”

Judges Amy St. Eve and Thomas Kirsch also sat on the panel.

Halczenko’s lawyer, William Bock of Kroger Gardis & Regas LLP, said they look forward to proceeding with their religious discrimination case against Ascension.

Ascension’s lawyer, Patricia Anderson Pryor of Jackson Lewis PC, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The case is Halczenko v. Ascension Health, 7th Cir., No. 22-01040, 6/23/22.

(Updated with additional reporting throughout.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Robert Iafolla in Washington at riafolla@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com; Genevieve Douglas at gdouglas@bloomberglaw.com