BREAKING: Federal judge approves $10M settlement for health care workers fired over COVID-19 vaccine mandate, sets legal precedent
Today, a U.S. judge approved $10.3 million settlement for workers who were fired by an Illinois health care system for refusing to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
About 500 workers who were terminated or, after seeing their exemption requests denied, got a shot, will receive compensation as part of the $10.3 million settlement, a preliminary version of which was initially approved in July.
U.S. District Judge John Kness, a Trump appointee overseeing the lawsuit brought by the workers, issued verbal approval for the settlement during a hearing, lawyers for Liberty Counsel and NorthShore University HealthSystem said. Kness plans to release a written judgement next week.
Harry Mihet, vice president of legal affairs for Liberty Counsel, said in a statement that the group was “pleased to finally get the court’s final approval of this classwide settlement for these health care workers who were unlawfully discriminated against and denied religious exemptions from the COVID shot mandate.
“This case should set a precedent for other employers who have violated the law by denying religious exemptions for their employees,” he added.
Liberty Counsel, a legal group that brings cases of alleged religious discrimination, was representing the 13 named plaintiffs in the case. The group successfully won class certification for all workers who were denied religious exemptions, a group that was initially believed to be 499 former and current workers, but swelled after the preliminary settlement agreement to at least 519.
As of Dec. 12, 493 class members had submitted claims for a piece of the settlement.
Each worker who was fired stands to receive $24,225. Each worker who remained at the company stands to receive $3,725.
The named plaintiffs are in line to receive an extra $20,000. Those payments, described as service awards, will provide compensation for the plaintiffs helping advise on court filings, gathering documents, and serving as lead plaintiffs “in a sensitive case involving personal health choices and religious beliefs over a matter of intense public debate, even when it was uncertain whether they would have to disclose their identities to the public,” according to a recent filing.
Three workers objected to the settlement, but both parties urged the judge to disregard the objections, which were largely based on pay the trio felt they were owed after being fired.
Marzena Novak, one of the objectors, said that her actual losses from being fired and losing pay approached $140,000.
“Although the estimated $25,000 is helpful and will be welcomed, it doesn’t come close to the actual losses suffered by those they treated so poorly,” Novak wrote.
Like many health care systems, NorthShore imposed a vaccine mandate on employees in 2021.
NorthShore told workers they could file a request for a religious exemption using a form that said the worker in question needed to provide “a description of my sincerely held religious principle or practice that guides my objection to receiving the required vaccination.” Northshore explicitly said not to fill out lengthy answers.
NorthShore initially approved some of the exemption requests but then reversed the decisions and denied “all or virtually all of them,” according to filings from the plaintiffs. Officials said the employees failed to meet the standard for religious exemptions.
Employees who wanted a second look were told to file an appeal that included their vaccination history since they were 18. NorthShore then said that any religious objections based on “aborted fetal cell lines, stem cells, tissue, or derivative materials” would result in denials because those products were “not in NorthShore administered vaccines.” All of the COVID-19 vaccines available in the United States have links to aborted fetal cell lines.
At one point, one of the plaintiffs said, her manager said that “we are not approving anyone” for exemptions, though at least several were approved.
“Instead of engaging Plaintiffs in good faith, NorthShore denied Plaintiffs’ religious exemption requests en masse, providing nothing more than copy and paste responses, informing them that they lacked ‘evidence-based criteria,’ whatever that means,” one filing stated. “By failing to engage any of the Plaintiffs and its numerous employees with religious objections in good faith, NorthShore had no way to know whether an acceptable accommodation might have been appropriate. The only responses received by Plaintiffs and NorthShore’s employees were one-size-fits-all blanket denials.”
Plaintiffs said the treatment violated the Civil Rights Act, which requires employers to treat workers similarly, and the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act, which forbids discrimination on the basis of “right of conscience.”
NorthShore repeatedly denied it violated the law.