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Fifth Circuit Allows Preliminary Injunction in Vaccine Mandate by Private Employer

In August 2021, United Airlines (UA) became the first U.S. airline carrier to require Covid-19 vaccinations for all domestic employees. UA placed employees requiring religious or medical exemptions under the mandate on leave. United Airlines says it has granted approximately 2,000 such exemptions. Six employees who requested these exemptions sought to block the company from placing them on indefinite, unpaid leave. They filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging discrimination under Title VII and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

By a 2 to 1 margin, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals approved a preliminary injunction against United Airlines. Reversing the district court’s denial of the injunction, the court found the employees put forth enough information to show irreparable harm would result from the enforcement of the mandate.

The Fifth Circuit limited its decision in a couple of ways. First, the case is unpublished and thus cannot be used to bind the court for future challenges to vaccine mandates. In addition, the injunction applies only to those employees who challenged the injunction based on religious discrimination and remain on unpaid leave because they are “being subjected to ongoing coercion based on their religious beliefs.” The court also limited its opinion to a finding of irreparable harm, declining to determine whether the employees would likely succeed on the merits of their suit or the other two elements necessary for an injunction. The district court must consider those factors in reviewing its decision to deny the injunction. In January 2022, UA’s CEO stated the company went eight weeks without the death of an employee from Covid-19 because of the mandate.