Religious Law

'The good ship 5th Circuit is afire': Majority invented 'new Title VII sin' in vaccine case, dissenter says

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A federal appeals judge under fire for asking a U.S. Department of Justice lawyer to remove his mask during oral arguments took a different tack in a fiery dissent in a case involving United Airlines’ employee vaccine mandate.

“We should not chill lifesaving answers to this pandemic,” wrote Judge Jerry Smith in his dissent.

Raffi Melkonian, who tweets at @RMFifthCircuit and is a 2022 ABA Journal Legal Rebel, summarized the Feb. 17 decision by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at New Orleans on Twitter.

The panel majority, in an unpublished per curiam opinion, ruled for a United Airlines pilot and flight attendant placed on unpaid leave because they refused the vaccine for religious reasons. The plaintiffs were among a group who filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in September 2021 but filed suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act in a bid for a preliminary injunction before receiving a right-to-sue letter.

The majority ruled that the plaintiffs had satisfied one prong of the test for a preliminary injunction.

In his dissent, Smith argued that the majority had decided to apply its decision to only the plaintiffs in an opinion without precedential effect, which is “a clever way” of discouraging en banc review.

“By today’s ruling, the Good Ship 5th Circuit is afire,” Smith wrote in a footnote. “We need all hands on deck.”

Smith accused the majority of engaging in a “‘one and done’ method of decision-making” that ends up fostering a “Blue Plate Special” cause of the day.

The majority concluded that preliminary injunctions may be available in limited circumstances to plaintiffs who sue private employers under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. In this case, the court said, the religious employees had established a likelihood that they would suffer irreparable injury if United Airlines could keep them on leave while their lawsuit was pending.

“United has presented plaintiffs with two options: violate their religious convictions or lose all pay and benefits indefinitely,” the appeals court said. “That is an impossible choice for plaintiffs who want to remain faithful but must put food on the table. In other words, United is actively coercing employees to abandon their convictions.”

The majority said the opinion addressed only one prong in the analysis of whether a preliminary injunction may be granted. It remanded the case for consideration of the remaining factors.

Smith’s dissent argued that Title VII does not allow private plaintiffs to obtain a preliminary injunction, the plaintiffs had not exhausted administrative remedies, and the plaintiffs had not shown that they are likely to win the case.

“Instead of confronting those odds, the majority ignores them and invents a new Title VII sin called ‘ongoing coercion,’ resulting in the plaintiffs’ win. Alleging ‘ongoing coercion’ now supplies a private right to preliminary injunctive relief—not because of text, history or precedent, but because two well-intentioned but misguided judges say so,” Smith wrote.

“The majority takes pains to stress that the plaintiffs’ injury is unique. That is why, the majority claims, this circumstance has never occurred before in the history of man and why recognizing it will not flood the courts with similar suits. That’s all wrong, of course. …

“It’s difficult to imagine what creative lawyers—not to mention federal judges spurred on by zealous law clerks—will do with these new tools. But a safe guess is that there will be more work for courts, more disruption and uncertainty for private business, and more power for judges.”

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