Ten New York City school teachers fired for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine on religious grounds must be reinstated with back pay, benefits, seniority and attorney fees effective immediately, a New York State Supreme Court judge ruled Wednesday afternoon, in what the plaintiffs’ attorney called a “precedent-setting” victory.
Nearly 7,000 New York City Department of Education (DOE) workers who sought religious accommodation from the COVID-19 vaccine mandate were denied based on standards that a federal court later ruled unconstitutional.
Some of the workers, along with Teachers for Choice, sued the city in February, in a lawsuit sponsored in part by Children’s Health Defense (CHD) and CHD New York.
The suit sought relief for 16 plaintiffs. It also sought class-action certification for all DOE workers who were denied religious exemptions.
Judge Ralph Porzio denied the plaintiffs’ motion to grant class status, ruling the parameters the petitioners submitted for defining the class were overly broad.
However, in his 22-page ruling, Judge Porzio said there was “no rational basis for the seemingly blanket denial of any religious exemption to all classroom teachers” provided by the respondents.
He found the lack of timely explanation provided to each teacher made the denials “arbitrary and capricious,” and the city’s claim that accommodating classroom teachers’ exemption requests would place undue hardship on the city was also “arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable.”
“This court sees no rational basis for not allowing unvaccinated classroom teachers in amongst an admitted population of primarily unvaccinated students,” he wrote.
On those bases, he granted relief to the 10 unvaccinated plaintiffs who completed all the steps in the administrative process for requesting exemption and appealed the city and DOE’s decision.
The court denied relief to six plaintiffs who did not complete the administrative process or whose exemptions were approved.
Commenting on the judge’s decision, Sujata Gibson, attorney for the plaintiffs, said: “We’ve been fighting for this since August of 2021 for these 10 people specifically. And we won and we won big for them. They were reinstated with back pay, with no break in service, and attorneys’ fees. That’s huge.
“The judge’s ruling yesterday, while not everything we wanted, is a precedent-setting victory, and a watershed moment in the teachers’ fight.”
Thousands of workers were subjected to the very same processes the judge ruled were “arbitrary and capricious,” and they could sue individually based on that precedent.
“The court’s ruling on class certification still leaves the door open to future relief for thousands of teachers negatively affected by the vaccine requirement. We intend to file a motion of reconsideration on a narrower basis.
Michael Kane, one of the teachers whom the court ordered reinstated in his job said this was a big win for the plaintiffs and for CHD, but that he was disappointed they weren’t certified as a class.
“I am happy for the 10 of us that were reinstated, but deeply saddened that this verdict does not have an impact on the thousands who were discriminated against and treated as heretics. So it’s definitely a mixed blessing and mixed emotions right now for me.”
More than 100 spectators who were members of the potential class attended the Wednesday hearing. Unlike previous hearings for this case, when Judge Porzio had allowed the plaintiffs’ supporters into the courtroom, yesterday he sent them to a separate room to watch the proceedings on closed circuit television, Kane told The Defender.