Legaretta v. Macias

Citation603 F.Supp.3d 1050
Decision Date06 May 2022
Docket NumberCase No. 21-cv-179 MV/GBW
Parties Isaac LEGARETTA, and John or Jane Does 1-20, Plaintiff, v. Fernando MACIAS, Dona Ana County Manager, Director Bryan Baker, an Official with the Dona Ana County Detention Center, Captain Ben Mendoza, an official with the Dona Ana County Detention Center, Captain Joshua Fleming, an official with the Dona Ana County Detention Center, County of Dona Ana and John or Jane Does 1-20, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of New Mexico

Jonathan Diener, Mule Creek, NM, N. Ana Garner, Santa Fe, NM, for Plaintiff.

Brandon Huss, New Mexico Association of Counties, Santa Fe, NM, David Anthony Roman, Mark L. Drebing, New Mexico Association of Counties, Albuquerque, NM, for Defendants Fernando Macias, Bryan Baker, Ben Mendoza, Joshua Fleming.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

MARTHA VÁZQUEZ, Senior United States District Judge

THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Defendants Macias, Baker, Mendoza, Fleming and County of Dona Ana's Motion to Dismiss in Lieu of an Answer ("Motion to Dismiss") [Doc. 20] and PlaintiffsMotion to Strike [Doc. 26]. The Court, having considered the motions and the relevant law, finds that DefendantsMotion to Dismiss is well-taken and will be granted and PlaintiffsMotion to Strike is not well-taken and will be denied.

BACKGROUND

Since its emergence last year, the novel coronavirus 2019, or Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has spread exponentially through the world, and New Mexico has been no exception. Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham first declared the existence of a Public Health Emergency in New Mexico in March 2020, when COVID-19 reached our State, and has since renewed that declaration. See Executive Order 2022-024 (Apr. 29, 2022), https://cv.nmhealth.org/public-health-orders-and-executive-orders/ (hereinafter referred to as "NM Health Website"). As of April 15, 2022, over 79 million people have been infected with COVID-19 in the United States, with over 1,000,000 related deaths, and the New Mexico Department of Health ("DOH") has reported over 519,000 positive COVID-19 cases and 7,400 related deaths in New Mexico. See April 15, 2022 Public Health Order , NM Health Website.

Efforts to develop and distribute a vaccine against COVID-19 were swift. In December 2020, the FDA granted emergency use authorizations ("EUA") for the Pfizer/BioNTech ("Pfizer") two-dose mRNA vaccine for individuals 16 and older and for the Moderna two-dose mRNA vaccine for individuals 18 and older. See FDA News Release (Dec. 11, 2020), https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/fda-takes-key-action-fight-against-covid-19-issuing-emergency-use-authorization-first-covid-19; FDA News Release (Dec. 18, 2020), https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/fda-takes-additional-action-fight-against-covid-19-issuing-emergency-use-authorization-second-covid. In February 2021, the FDA granted EUA for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for individuals 18 and older. FDA News Release (Feb. 27, 2021), https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/fda-issues-emergency-use-authorization-third-covid-19-vaccine. In May 2021, Pfizer's vaccine received EUA for individuals 12 and older, and then in August 2021, full FDA approval for individuals 16 and older. See FDA News Release (May 10, 2021), https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/coronavirus-covid-19-update-fda-authorizes-pfizer-biontech-covid-19-vaccine-emergency-use; FDA News Release (August 23, 3021), https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/fda-approves-first-covid-19-vaccine. In October 2021, the FDA authorized the emergency use of Pfizer's vaccine for children five through 11 years of age. See FDA News Release (Oct. 29, 2021), https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/fda-authorizes-pfizer-biontech-covid-19-vaccine-emergency-use-children-5-through-11-years-age. In November 2021, the FDA amended the EUA for both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, authorizing use of a single booster dose for all individuals 18 years of age and older after completion of primary vaccination

with any FDA-authorized or approved COVID-19 vaccine. See FDA News Release (Nov. 19, 2021), https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/coronavirus-covid-19-update-fda-expands-eligibility-covid-19-vaccine-boosters. In December 2021 and January 2022, the FDA again amended the EUA for the Pfizer vaccine, expanding authorization of booster doses to individuals 12 to 17 years of age, at least five months after completion of primary vaccination with the Pfizer vaccine. See FDA News Release (Dec. 9, 2021), https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/coronavirus-covid-19-update-fda-expands-eligibility-pfizer-biontech-covid-19-booster-dose-16-and-17; FDA News Release (Jan. 3, 2022), https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/coronavirus-covid-19-update-fda-takes-multiple-actions-expand-use-pfizer-biontech-covid-19-vaccine. And on March 29, 2022, the FDA authorized a second booster dose of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or the Moderna COVID-19 vaccines for older people and certain immunocompromised individuals. FDA News Release (Mar. 29, 2022), https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/coronavirus-covid-19-update-fda-authorizes-second-booster-dose-two-covid-19-vaccines-older-and. The DOH has advised that: "the currently available COVID-19 vaccines are safe and the most effective way of preventing infection, serious illness, and death"; "widespread vaccination protects New Mexico's health care system as vaccines decrease the need for emergency services and hospitalization"; and "the refusal to receive the COVID-19 vaccine not only endangers the individual but the entire community, and further jeopardizes the progress the State has made against the pandemic by allowing the virus to transmit more freely and mutate into more transmissible or deadly variants." August 17, 2021 Public Health Order ("August 17, 2021 PHO" ), NM Health Website.

Against this backdrop, on January 29, 2021, Dona Ana County Manager Fernando Macias issued a memorandum to "All Dona County First Responders," regarding "Mandatory Covid-19 Vaccine Directive" ("Vaccine Directive"). Doc. 17 at 25. Macias's memo explained: "in accordance with the County's duty to provide and maintain a workplace that is free of known hazards, we are adopting a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination

directive to safeguard the health of our employees, their families, the customers we serve, and the community at large from this highly contagious, infectious disease." Id. The memo further indicated that the Vaccine Directive "takes into account all applicable laws and guidance from local health authorities." Id. Under the Vaccine Directive, "all first responders," including "detention officers and other staff who have face-to-face contact with inmates," are "required to receive the COVID-19 vaccination unless a reasonable accommodation is approved." Id. The memo required that first responders receive the first dose of the vaccine by February 5, 2021, and made clear that "[b]eing vaccinated [was] a requirement and a condition of on-going employment with the County due to the significant health and safety risks posed by contracting or spreading COVID-19." Id. at 26.

At the time that Macias issued the Vaccine Directive, Plaintiffs Isaac Legaretta and Anthony Zoccoli were employed at the Dona Ana County Detention Center (the "Detention Center"). Doc. 17 ¶ 4. On February 17, 2021, Legaretta signed a "Coaching/Counseling Acknowledgement" ("Acknowledgment"), which referenced the Vaccine Directive and noted that the Director of the Detention Center, Bryan Baker, had sent a follow-up email to all Detention Center staff "with a requirement that all individuals with access to the secure area of the facility are mandated to have received their first dose of their vaccination

by February 5, 2021, unless there is a documented ADA or EEO exception granted by Human Resources." Doc. 17 at 27. The Acknowledgement states that, as of February 17, 2021, Legaretta had "not provided proof of receiving the COVID-19 vaccination or having registered for the vaccination." Id. The Acknowledgement gave Legaretta five business days to either "comply with the directives" or "request a reasonable accommodation by Human Resources." Id.

Legaretta refused to receive the vaccine or request an accommodation. Doc. 17 ¶ 5. As a result, he was "reassigned to the juvenile section of the Detention Center" and "dismissed from a position he had on the Detention Center's emergency response team." Id. ¶¶5-6. Ultimately, he "quit his employment with [Dona Ana] County." Id. ¶ 7. Zoccoli similarly refused to receive the vaccine or request an accommodation and, as a result, was terminated from his employment at the Detention Center. Id. ¶ 8.

Based on the negative employment consequences of his refusal to receive the vaccine, Legaretta commenced the instant action by filing his Complaint for Injunctive and Declaratory Relief against Macias, Baker, Captain Ben Mendoza, and Captain Joshua Fleming (collectively, the "Individual Defendants").1 Doc. 1. Although Legaretta did not file a separate motion requesting emergency relief, the Complaint requested, inter alia , that the Court "[e]nter an immediate TRO and a preliminary injunction enjoining the Defendants from terminating, demoting, or taking any negative action against Plaintiff for refusing to take a non-mandatory unapproved vaccine." Id. at 9. In an Order entered on March 4, 2021, the Court declined to issue an emergency order on an ex parte basis but set an expedited briefing schedule on Legaretta's request for emergency relief. Doc. 7.

On March 19, 2021, Legaretta withdrew his motion for emergency relief. Doc. 14. Thereafter, on April 30, 2021, Legaretta filed an unopposed motion to amend his Complaint, Doc. 15, which the Court granted on May 5, 2021. Doc. 18. On May 4, 2021, Legaretta filed the Amended Complaint for Injunctive and...

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