Federal judge dismisses LAPD officers' lawsuit over vaccine mandate
The officers failed to prove that the mandate violated certain constitutional rights, a judge ruled
By Kevin Rector
Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit by Los Angeles police officers challenging the city's COVID-19 vaccination and testing mandate, rejecting their claims that it violated their constitutional rights.
U.S. District Court Judge R. Gary Klausner said the 13 suing officers could reassert their claims of religious discrimination if they had any evidence to prove it — which he said they had so far failed to provide — but rejected outright their claims that the mandate violated their constitutional rights to privacy and due process and against unreasonable searches and seizures.
City Atty. Mike Feuer in a statement praised the judge's ruling as the latest to affirm the legitimacy of the city's coronavirus protocols, a nod to judges having rebuffed other challenges, including from the police union.
"With the Omicron variant raging, this victory for public health and safety — the fourth my office has secured — comes at an especially crucial time," Feuer said. "With record numbers of COVID-19 cases each day, it is more important than ever that the first responders we trust to keep us safe comply with the vaccine mandate."
Daniel Watkins, an attorney for the officers, said they were "reviewing the court's ruling and determining next steps."
Capt. Stacy Spell, an LAPD spokesman, said the judge's order "speaks for itself," and that the department will continue to comply with the mandate and "work towards achieving a workplace that is 100 percent vaccinated."
Based on close scrutiny of their global development, distribution and impact, medical experts agree that the vaccines are safe and effective against the worst symptoms of COVID-19, with data showing the vaccinated to be far less likely to be hospitalized or to die from the virus.
The city mandate requires officers and other city employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or to be regularly tested if they are awaiting or have received a medical or religious exemption. More than 80% of personnel in the LAPD and the Los Angeles Fire Department have been vaccinated, but others are holding out for exemptions amid alarming surges in infections within their departments.
Last week, Mayor Eric Garcetti, LAPD Chief Michel Moore and LAFD Chief Ralph Terrazas held a news conference to reassure the public that the agencies were still meeting staffing requirements amid the surges in cases. They also reiterated their commitment to the vaccination and testing requirements, which Garcetti said were aimed at protecting front-line workers, those they come into contact with and the broader operations of city agencies.
Garcetti said he hoped the Omicron surge would pass quickly. He also said the city's personnel department was still assessing the thousands of exemption requests on file, including from police and firefighters, and had no timeline for when they would be granted or rejected.
Although none of the suing officers asserted that their religious exemption requests had been denied, Klausner's ruling left open the possibility they could assert discrimination on such grounds under amended complaints — which he said would "not necessarily be futile."
However, Klausner gave the officers only until Friday to make any such amendments in the existing case, and it was unclear whether the officers' exemption requests would be adjudicated by the city by then.
As for the officers' constitutional claims, Klausner's dismissal was more conclusive.
Klausner found that the U.S. Supreme Court "has long rejected a fundamental right to refuse vaccination," and that there "is no fundamental right to continued governmental employment."
Therefore, he found, the mandate does not impinge on any fundamental rights to "bodily integrity" or employment, as the officers had claimed, and is reasonable given the city's "rational basis" for it.
Klausner found that the immediacy of the COVID-19 threat makes the testing regime for the unvaccinated reasonable as well, particularly given that the tests represent "negligible intrusions" — and ones that are less intrusive than other conditions of LAPD employment, such as random urinalysis testing.
"Considering [the officers] are entrusted with public safety and have contractually consented to searches that are more invasive than those required by COVID tests, [they] undoubtedly have a reduced privacy interest here," the judge wrote.
Klausner also rejected claims by the officers that the city's mandate violated requirements under the vaccines' earlier emergency-use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration that medical providers get "informed and voluntary consent" from those to whom they are administering the vaccines.
Klausner noted the Pfizer vaccine in particular now has full — not emergency — authorization from the FDA, and that the earlier consent standard had applied specifically to medical providers, not employers such as the city.
Alex Comisar, a spokesman for Garcetti, said the vaccine mandate "has always been about protecting the health and safety of our workers and the public, and the mayor is pleased that the court has recognized that in its ruling."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.
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