51 Henry Ford employees sue hospital system over vaccine mandate

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Fifty-one employees of Henry Ford Health System are suing the hospital system for its vaccine mandate ahead of the Friday deadline for employees to complete their vaccinations. 

The lawsuit filed Monday in Detroit U.S. District Court argues that employees would be subjecting themselves to "potential harm and death" by getting the vaccine and cites death and injury data from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System to support their reluctance to get the vaccine.

Under Detroit-based Henry Ford's policy, employees found not to be in compliance by Friday will be suspended and are expected to complete their vaccination process by Oct. 1 or be fired.

"Defendants’ actions to implement compulsory COVID-19 vaccine shots as a condition of continuing employment is both unconstitutional and has caused money damages to plaintiffs," the lawsuit said. "Additionally, the actions of defendants subjects plaintiffs to a significant likelihood of bodily harm."

The Blue Angels fly over Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit to honor health care workers in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic on April 12, 2020. Fifty-one employees of Henry Ford Health System are suing the hospital system for its vaccine mandate ahead of the Friday, Sept. 10, 2021 deadline for employees to complete their vaccinations.

U.S. District Judge Terrence Berg, an appointee of Democratic former President Barack Obama, will hold a hearing Friday regarding the request for an immediate halt to the enforcement of Henry Ford's policy.

“We remain confident that vaccination is the most powerful tool we all have against the COVID-19 pandemic," the health system said in response to the suit. "Beyond that, we cannot comment on pending litigation.”

Many of the 51 employees involved in the suit are registered nurses, of which the hospital is experiencing a shortage. Last month, hospital Chief Operating Officer Bob Riney said the hospital system was "several hundred" nurses short.

The suit argues that the policy violates the employees' 14th Amendment right to bodily integrity and personal autonomy. The suit argues the denial of medical treatment is a "fundamental right."

The 1905 Jacobson decision, often cited to support the legality of vaccine mandates, was decided more than 100 years ago, stemmed from a criminal case and has been "substantially overruled" in the more than a century since it was decided, the lawsuit said.

"Defendants claim the protection of their patients as a goal for the mandate, but this argument is illogical," the lawsuit said. "If the 'vaccines are effective,' the vaccinated bear no risk created by the unvaccinated."

In June, more than 150 employees resigned or were fired from the hospital system Houston Methodist after a Texas federal district judge dismissed a lawsuit by a nurse who alleged the policy was unlawful. 

Less than a month later, the U.S. Department of Justice opined in a legal opinion that the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act does not prevent entities from imposing vaccine mandates, including when a vaccine only has approval for emergency use.

About 56%, or about 4.8 million people, over the age of 12 in Michigan are fully vaccinated, according to state data.