Doe v. NorthShore Univ. HealthSystem

Decision Date30 November 2021
Docket Number21-cv-05683
PartiesJANE DOE 1, JANE DOE 2, JANE DOE 3, JANE DOE 4, JANE DOE 5, JANE DOE 6, JANE DOE 7, JANE DOE 8, JANE DOE 9, JANE DOE 10, JANE DOE 11, JANE DOE 12, JANE DOE 13, JANE DOE 14, Plaintiffs, v. NORTHSHORE UNIVERSITY HEALTHSYSTEM, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of Illinois

JANE DOE 1, JANE DOE 2, JANE DOE 3, JANE DOE 4, JANE DOE 5, JANE DOE 6, JANE DOE 7, JANE DOE 8, JANE DOE 9, JANE DOE 10, JANE DOE 11, JANE DOE 12, JANE DOE 13, JANE DOE 14, Plaintiffs,
v.
NORTHSHORE UNIVERSITY HEALTHSYSTEM, Defendant.

No. 21-cv-05683

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

November 30, 2021


MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

JOHN F. KNESS, United States District Judge

It is a regrettable fact that the COVID-19 pandemic continues to roil nearly all facets of life in the United States and across the globe. Along with the immense toll in lives lost, persistent sickness, and material and financial costs, efforts to ameliorate the pandemic have generated fresh fissures along familiar fault lines. A recent source of COVID-19 is the new mandates-public and private-that certain people receive one of the approved COVID-19 vaccines. Such mandates have, perhaps unavoidably, led to collisions between the interests of public health, personal liberty, and public policy.

This case presents a tangible example of those colliding interests. A group of hospital workers face termination for their refusal, on religious grounds, to be

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vaccinated against the COVID-19 disease. Plaintiffs are employed by Defendant NorthShore University Health System, which is a conglomerate of local hospitals. Plaintiffs challenge NorthShore's policy requiring all of its employees to receive one of the available coronavirus vaccines in an effort to stem COVID-19 cases.

NorthShore's hospitals have been on the front lines fighting the pandemic in the Chicagoland area. Its employees, including Plaintiffs, have worked tirelessly to ameliorate the toll wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. At the close of the first year of the pandemic, three COVID-19 vaccines became widely available to the American public. NorthShore determined that, for the health and safety of its staff, visitors, and patients, it would require its employees to be vaccinated.

NorthShore's vaccine requirement led to the case now before the Court. Plaintiffs registered religious objections to receiving any of the available COVID-19 vaccines because, Plaintiffs say, the vaccines were developed using cell lines derived from aborted fetuses. Plaintiffs offered NorthShore an alternative: in lieu of becoming vaccinated, Plaintiffs would instead submit to full-time masking and weekly COVID-19 testing. But NorthShore insisted that Plaintiffs either get vaccinated or find work elsewhere. Plaintiffs now seek a judicial order preventing NorthShore from firing them based on their unvaccinated status. According to Plaintiffs, NorthShore's policy violates both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act.

At issue in this opinion is Plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction preserving the status quo during the pendency of this case. Also at issue is Plaintiffs'

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request for preliminary class-wide treatment and to litigate using pseudonyms. Striving to save lives while still respecting fundamental rights-a goal professed by both sides-is, of course, both worthy and challenging. But efforts to harmonize those twin aims of safety and liberty must always align with binding legal precepts. As explained below, although Plaintiffs have demonstrated some likelihood of success on the merits of their Title VII claim-employers are required to make reasonable accommodations of religious practices and views-Plaintiffs cannot meet the additional prerequisites for preliminary injunctive relief of showing irreparable harm. Put another way, if Plaintiffs succeed at trial, their damages can be fully compensated through the traditional legal remedy of a damages award. Because that remedy is available, the Court cannot lawfully enter a preliminary injunction. Accordingly, although the Court will allow Plaintiffs to remain pseudonymous, the Court denies Plaintiffs' motions for a preliminary injunction and for preliminary class-wide treatment.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiffs are healthcare professionals, all of whom have sincerely held religious beliefs against the COVID-19 vaccines. (Dkt. 1 ¶ 4.) Following federal approval of the COVID-19 vaccine and a variety of different approaches to vaccination, NorthShore decided to require its employees to receive COVID-19 vaccinations. (Dkt. 24 at 1.) NorthShore established an exemption process to the mandate much like the process it has used for years regarding mandatory influenza and other required immunizations. (Id.) Broadly, employees can request an

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exemption from the requirement that they receive the COVID-19 vaccine for religious or medical/disability reasons. (Id.) Approximately 700 employees sought exemptions; more than 500 of those requests were based on employees' religious views. (Id. at 2.) NorthShore initially denied virtually all religious exemption requests. (Dkt. 1 ¶ 5.) Employees are allowed to appeal denials of their exemption applications, and approximately 400 employees, including the 14 Plaintiffs who brought this case, appealed NorthShore's denials of their applications. (Dkt. 24 at 2.)

NorthShore based its initial denials on “evidence-based criteria” not articulated to employees. (Dkt. 1 ¶¶ 56-74.) But after initially denying the religious exemptions, NorthShore changed tack: it approved all requested religious exemptions, but then determined that providing an accommodation to any employee with an in-person role would impose undue hardship on NorthShore. (Id. ¶¶ 84-87; see Dkt. 24 at 3.)

Under NorthShore's new approach, employees who remain unvaccinated through the end of 2021 will be terminated. (Dkt. 42 at 2.) That diktat followed NorthShore's earlier decision to place employees who chose to remain unvaccinated on unpaid leave (or, paid, if they have paid leave time available) beginning on November 1. (Dkt. 24 at 3.) Employees not party to this suit who received an exemption and failed to meet the October 30 deadline for vaccination were placed on leaves of absence and required to use their accumulated leave time before their eventual January 1 termination. (Dkt. 41 at 5.)

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Separately, NorthShore initially granted accommodations to some employees seeking medical exemptions-the other class of employees eligible for exemptions- so long as they complied with certain precautions including masking and weekly testing. (Dkt. 1 ¶ 55.) At some point after this Court entered a temporary restraining order (Dkt. 31), NorthShore changed its policy such that all individuals seeking exemptions (those seeking religious exemptions and those seeking medical exemptions) would be placed on unpaid leave. (Dkt. 41 at 22.)

NorthShore's shifting process rests against the backdrop of a complex and changing legal landscape. Governmental units of both the United States and the State of Illinois have promulgated multiple orders and actions that affect the rights and responsibilities of NorthShore to vaccinate its employees. (See, e.g., Dkt. 1 ¶¶ 48- 49; Dkt. 24 at 2-3; Dkt. 41 at 11-13.) Illinois, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) have issued rules that include some forms of vaccine mandates. (See Dkt. 41 at 11-13.) But, importantly, each of those rules included alternatives to receipt of the COVID-19 vaccine that accommodated those seeking religious exemptions. (Id.) Other federal district and appellate courts have also weighed in on various legal arguments concerning vaccine mandates like those imposed by NorthShore. See, e.g., Sambrano v. United Airlines, Inc., 2021 WL 5176691, at *1 (N.D. Tex. Nov. 8, 2021); BST Holdings, L.L.C. v. OSHA, 2021 WL 5279381, at *1 (5th Cir. Nov. 12, 2021).

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Seeking relief in advance of the impending vaccination mandate deadlines, Plaintiffs sued on October 25, 2021 seeking, among other remedies, preliminary injunctive relief against NorthShore. (Dkt. 1; Dkt. 3; Dkt. 4.) After an expedited briefing schedule, the Court held a hearing on October 29 and entered a temporary restraining order. (Dkt. 30; Dkt. 31.) At its own instance, the Court also questioned Plaintiffs' effort to litigate pseudonymously (Dkt. 11), before permitting Plaintiffs to proceed pseudonymously pending further briefing and analysis (Dkt. 31). In addition, the Court invited the parties to provide further briefing addressing Plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction and Plaintiffs' request for preliminary class treatment. (Dkt. 30.) Following a hearing on November 16, the Court extended the temporary restraining order until November 29. All time-sensitive issues-the requests for a preliminary injunction, class-wide preliminary treatment, and pseudonymity-are now before the Court for resolution.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

A preliminary injunction “is often seen as a way to maintain the status quo until merits issues can be resolved at trial.” Michigan v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 667 F.3d 765, 783 (7th Cir. 2011). To obtain a preliminary injunction, a plaintiff “must show that: (1) without this relief, it will suffer ‘irreparable harm'; (2) ‘traditional legal remedies would be inadequate'; and (3) it has some likelihood of prevailing on the merits of its claims.” Mays v. Dart, 974 F.3d 810, 818 (7th Cir. 2020), cert. denied, 2021 WL 4507625 (U.S. Oct. 4, 2021) (quoting Speech First, Inc. v. Killeen, 968 F.3d 628, 637 (7th Cir. 2020)). If the party seeking preliminary injunctive

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relief “fails to demonstrate any one of these three threshold requirements, the court must deny the injunction.” Crawford & Co. Med. Ben. Tr. v. Repp, 2011 WL 2531844, at *1 (N.D.Ill. June 24, 2011) (quoting Grace Christian Fellowship v. KJG Invest. Inc., 2009 WL 2460990, at *5 (E.D. Wis. Aug. 7, 2009)).

If a plaintiff can satisfy the triple prerequisites of likelihood of success, irreparable harm, and an inadequate remedy, the Court must then “weigh...

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