NYC teachers win jobs back with backpay after refusing COVID-19 vaccine

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A New York judge said Wednesday that 10 employees fired by the New York City Department of Education for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine must be reinstated with back pay.

In a major victory for vaccine mandate opponents, State Supreme Court Judge Ralph J. Porzio held that the city’s denials of religious accommodation to certain employees were unlawful, arbitrary and capricious. The case, DiCapua v. City of New York, concerned school principals, teachers and other educators who sued after city officials rejected their claims for a religious exemption to the vaccine mandate. 

‘This Court sees no rational basis for not allowing unvaccinated classroom teachers in amongst an admitted population of primarily unvaccinated students,’ Porzio wrote in a 22-page opinion. ‘As such, the decision to summarily deny the classroom teachers amongst the Panel Petitioners based on an undue hardship, without any further evidence of individualized analysis, is arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable. As such, each classroom teacher amongst the Panel Petitioners is entitled to a religious exemption from the Vaccine Mandate.’ 

New York City’s vaccine mandate for all Department of Education workers was in effect from Oct. 1, 2021, to Feb. 10, 2023. Thousands of teachers and other education workers lost their jobs under the policy for refusing to comply with the mandate. 

Sujata Gibson, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, celebrated the victory as a ‘watershed moment in the teachers’ two-year fight for relief,’ according to a news release by Children’s Health Defense, a nonprofit founded by vaccine skeptic and Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

‘The Court’s decision not only grants relief to these ten teachers, but it also sets important precedent for all other teachers denied religious accommodation,’ Gibson said.

Porzio’s ruling in favor of the fired educators did not extend to petitioners who had not initially applied for religious accommodation under the city’s vaccine mandate, which a federal court struck down as unconstitutional in 2021. 

‘The Court agreed that employees were not required to submit applications through the prior unlawful process but still declined to award relief to those plaintiffs on the grounds that there were contested issues of fact as to whether these plaintiffs submitted applications under the new process,’ said Gibson. ‘This is an error, and we will be making a motion to reargue on their behalf.’

The court also rejected plaintiff motion for class certification, stating that the proposed class was ‘overbroad.’

‘The judge’s ruling yesterday, while not everything we wanted, is a precedent-setting victory,’ said Gibson. ‘The court’s ruling in the 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. Rather than waste public resources clogging the courts with so many individual lawsuits, legal action that will remedy these discriminatory policies for all impacted workers only makes sense.’

The New York City Department of Education and the mayor’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

‘Today’s ruling is bittersweet,’ said Michael Kane, a New York teacher who lost his job after refusing the COVID-19 vaccine. ‘While it’s an important step in the right direction, justice for only 10 of us doesn’t even scratch the surface of the injustice suffered by NYC workers as a result of this illegal mandate.’

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