Court rulings echo Doña Ana County vaccine mandate case

LAS CRUCES – While a challenge to Doña Ana County’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for its employees awaits action in federal court, rulings in other states have upheld vaccine requirements by employers and educational institutions, the latest coming from Indiana.

Two former Doña Ana County Detention Center officers – Isaac Legaretta and Anthony Zoccoli, plus unnamed plaintiffs – are suing the county over a January mandate that first-responders and certain other employees receive a COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of employment.

Since then, the county has instituted a requirement that all new employees be vaccinated against the disease as well.

This week, U.S. District Judge Damon R. Leichty denied a request for a preliminary injunction against a vaccine requirement for students and employees at Indiana University, permitting the requirement to stand while the case is heard.

Eight students sued the university over its policy requiring vaccination of students and employees, arguing in court that it violated their rights to bodily integrity, religious freedom and the right to informed choice over medical treatment.

Like the former Doña Ana County employees, the Indiana students argued they were being coerced into taking a vaccine that has not completed the full clinical trial process. The three COVID-19 vaccines currently used in the U.S. have Emergency Use Authorizations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Leichty denied the requirement amounts to coercion, noting that the university allows for religious and medical exemptions and writing that “students aren’t being forced to take the vaccine against their will.”

“..They have real options – taking the vaccine, applying for a religious exemption, applying for a medical exemption, applying for a medical deferral, taking a semester off, or attending another university or online,” the judge wrote in the order.

He concluded that the students have a right to refuse the treatment at the same time the university had the right “to pursue a reasonable and due process of vaccination in the legitimate interest of public health for its students, faculty, and staff.”

Doña Ana County’s position is similar. County Manager Fernando Macias informed employees that “being vaccinated is a requirement and a condition of ongoing employment with the County due to the significant health and safety risks posed by contracting or spreading COVID-19.”

Initially, this applied to first-responders and detention center officers, but has since been expanded to include all new employees of the county.

Zoccoli claims he was terminated from his job for refusing the vaccine, while Legaretta resigned after declining the shot and, according to his court complaint, being reassigned and dropped from the detention center’s emergency response team.

Among their arguments, the New Mexico plaintiffs claim that the U.S. Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act affirms a right to refuse a vaccine that is approved under an EUA. However, a federal judge in Texas ruled in another case earlier this summer that the law does not bar employers from requiring vaccinations.

In that case, nurse Jennifer Bridges and 116 other employees challenged a vaccine mandate instituted by Houston Methodist Hospital. The employees have appealed that ruling, and the Indiana University plaintiffs have indicated they would appeal their case as well.

Moreover, in May the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission opined that employers may require employees to be vaccinated as long as they grant reasonable accommodations for disabilities or sincere religious beliefs.

The former Doña Ana County employees are represented by Santa Fe attorney Nancy Ana Garner, who also represents New Mexico Stands Up, a group that has opposed COVID-19 public health emergency directives including mask and vaccine mandates.

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