US court rejects appeal to counter United Airlines vaccine mandate

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A US federal court rejected an appeal by six employees at United Airlines who are challenging the company’s vaccine mandate. 

This case, Sambrano v. United Airlines, 21-11159, was filed in September of 2021. 

It can be recalled that in October of 2021, United Airlines said that its unvaccinated pilots are costing the airline millions per month as the carrier’s vaccinated pilots refuse to fly with unvaccinated colleagues.

The following month, the court ruled that the airline is able to put workers with vaccination exemption on unpaid leave.

The lawsuit challenges the airline’s requirements, which include placing unvaccinated workers with a religious or medical objection to its mandate on unpaid leave.

The latest ruling came in an order issued on December 15, 2021, by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The court also granted a motion to expedite an appeal in the case.

A brief timeline of events:

On August 6, 2021, United Airlines mandated that all its domestic employees receive a COVID-19 vaccination unless they are exempt due to medical or religious reasons. 

On September 8, 2021, the airline issued a memo to employees saying that those who have been granted religious and medical exemptions from getting a COVID-19 vaccine will be put on unpaid leave.  

In late September 2021, a group of United Airlines employees, including two pilots, a flight attendant and an aircraft technician, filed a federal lawsuit over the mandate, arguing that unpaid leave is an adverse employment action.

In early October 2021, US District Judge Mark Pittman ruled against United Airlines, temporarily halting its plan to put unvaccinated employees who request a medical or religious exemption on unpaid leave until October 26, 2021. 

On October 25, 2021, Pittman extended this temporary restraining order (TRO) to November 8, 2021. This means that all employees who requested medical or religious exemption will remain on the company’s payroll. 

On November 8, 2021, the Court concluded that the Plaintiffs have not clearly carried their burden to show they would likely suffer imminent, irreparable injury absent an injunction. The court has allowed United Airlines to carry on its unpaid leave scheme for workers with medical and religious exemptions from COVID-19 vaccine. 

On December 15, 2021, Judge James Ho disagreed to putting unvaxxed employees on leave, saying that  company mandate violates a provision in the Civil Rights Act that prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of religion. The court also granted a motion to expedite an appeal in the case. 

Following the district court decision, United said to local press: “We know that the best way to keep everyone as safe as we can is for everyone to get vaccinated, as nearly all United employees have chosen to do.” 

The airline said it will review COVID-19 transmission and case rates every 30 days to determine when it is safe to let unvaccinated employees resume their original roles.

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