Firefighters Sue City Over Vaccine Mandate

Two Beverly Hills firefighters have filed a lawsuit against the city and Los Angeles County over the county’s vaccine mandate for healthcare workers. The lawsuit also names Los Angeles County Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis and Councilmember John Mirisch. The lawsuit seeks an injunction and unspecified compensatory damages.

The lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court on behalf of Josh Sattley and Ettore Berardinelli Jr., takes aim at a county rule announced in August that requires all healthcare workers to get vaccinated. As licensed emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedics, Beverly Hills Fire Department (BHFD) firefighters fall within the scope of the mandate.

The order, issued by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (Public Health), allowed for exemptions in two cases: workers whose “sincerely held religious beliefs” precluded receiving the vaccine and those with qualifying medical reasons. Healthcare workers had until Sept. 30 to be fully vaccinated or receive an exemption.

Following the deadline, the Courier reported that more than 25% of BHFD firefighters requested exemptions to the requirement. Sattley and Berardinelli were among that group, according to the complaint.

The city swiftly conducted interviews with the firefighters seeking exemptions and announced the results on Oct. 1. Of the five firefighters seeking medical exemptions, only one received a full exemption while the rest were granted 30-day temporary exemptions. None of the 20 people seeking exemptions for “sincerely held religious beliefs” received full exemptions. Instead, 14 of them were given 30-day exemptions and six requests were denied. Five of those denied religious exemptions took the shot, while one was placed on unpaid administrative leave.

The one firefighter placed on leave was Sattley, according to the lawsuit. While Berardinelli received a temporary religious exemption, the lawsuit states that the city has extended the exemption periodically and put the exemption under “constant review.”

Berardinelli, along with the other firefighters who were granted exemptions, were excluded from medical calls, a move that drew criticism from opponents of the mandate, including the union representing the fire fighters. “The directive from the city decreases the level of services provided by the BHFD,” the Beverly Hills Firefighters Association said in a post on Instagram.

The fire department plans on hiring a new firefighter with a paramedic license in January 2022, according to Beverly Hills Chief Communications Officer Keith Sterling. “We are currently in the process of hiring 8 more Firefighters with paramedic licenses that will start early summer 2022,” Sterling said, adding that COVID-19 vaccination status is a prerequisite for new employees.

The lawsuit does not elaborate on the specifics of either plaintiff ‘s religious beliefs. Scott James Street, an attorney in the case, also declined to offer details.

“Religious discrimination is just one aspect of this case, one that will be explored in discovery and eventually at trial,” Street told the Courier. “The case is also about due process and the right to privacy, rights that have long been recognized under the California Constitution and which matter now more than ever.”

The lawsuit claims that Public Health exceeded its authority under state law in issuing the mandate. It further argues that the mandate “does not allow employers to question the sincerity of an individual’s religious objection to the COVID-19 shot,” which it says violates the First Amendment. The suit holds that the city violated Sattley’s right to due process by depriving him of an opportunity to challenge his suspension. Lastly, the suit claims that the mandate violates the California constitutional right to privacy.

A spokesperson for Public Health declined to comment on the lawsuit. “The county has taken extensive steps during the pandemic to keep the public safe and the vaccination policy is an essential public health measure intended to protect the residents of Los Angeles County,” Public Health told the Courier.

The city did not comment on the specifics of the lawsuit but broadly defended its actions in implementing the county’s mandate.

“The work of emergency first responders puts them on the front lines of patient care,” said Sterling. “The city remains committed to protecting the health of our residents and visitors during this ongoing pandemic.”

The suit singles out Mirisch for a letter of his published in the Beverly Weekly in response to the 25 firefighters seeking vaccine exemptions. Mirisch described the religious exemptions as “nothing short of an attempt to manipulate the system on a massive scale.”

In an interview with the Courier, Mirisch doubled down on his position, saying that he would prefer that the mandate not allow for any religious exemptions (though he acknowledged that most other council members did not agree with him).

“I appreciate and I’m very grateful and respectful of the 80% of our firefighters who have stepped up and done the right thing,” he said. “You’ve got a few people whose attitude is ‘it’s all about me,’ who clearly don’t understand what public service is and who look at the city as an ATM machine.”

Along with Sattley and Berardinelli, the suit also names an anti-vaccine mandate organization Protection of the Educational Rights of Kids (PERK) as a plaintiff. In an email to the Courier, PERK President Amy Bohn denied being anti-vaccine.

“However, we are against mandates,” she said. Bohn added that more than 21 other BHPD firefighters are members of PERK.

Vaccine mandates of some form have a long history in the United States, dating as far back as the Revolutionary War. In 1905, the Supreme Court upheld the right of states to mandate vaccination against smallpox or levy a fine against those who refused.

Additionally, every state and the District of Columbia currently require vaccinations for children to attend school. This, too, has withstood constitutional scrutiny.

The current lawsuit could face a number of hurdles. Under state law, “the powers of the local health county are very, very broad,” according to Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law Dorit Reiss, who writes about vaccine law.

Reiss said that she has observed a number of similar suits to the one filed against Beverly Hills, but she hasn’t “seen any of these that were actually successful.”

Reiss pointed to a recent move by the Supreme Court declining to intervene against New York’s vaccine mandate, which does not allow for religious exemptions. In October, the court refused to intervene on behalf of healthcare workers in Maine, which also does not grant exemptions on religious grounds.

Reiss noted that the court’s decision in both the New York and Maine cases only applied to the plaintiffs’ emergency applications. The court’s conservative majority could rule against vaccine mandates if it decides to hear a challenge in those or other cases at a later date.

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