A Louisiana law firm sent letters to two Lafayette hospital systems Wednesday threatening legal action on behalf of a group of employees if the medical centers don’t back off from announced COVID-19 vaccine mandates for employees.
The law firm, Faircloth Melton Sobel and Bash, LLC, has offices in Alexandria and Baton Rouge and specializes in governmental law and litigation, commercial litigation, medical malpractice defense litigation, insurance defense litigation and environmental law and litigation, according to their website.
They’re joined in the letter by the Law Office of G. Shelly Maturin II, LLC and Bryson Law Firm LLC, both based in Lafayette.
In the letter, the lawyers said they would seek an injunction against Ochsner Lafayette General Medical Center and Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center if they did not rescind their vaccine mandates by Sept. 17. They’d further seek to recover damages caused “by this misguided venture,” the letter stated.
The lead attorney, Jimmy Faircloth, said they’d plan to file in the 15th Judicial District Court in Lafayette if the hospitals don’t reconsider their position.
“Right now the goal is to cause the hospitals to reconsider and to handle it differently and have everybody go on about their business without having to do litigation...We tried to be very authoritative and say here is why we think we’re correct and please reconsider. At this point we’d rather not have hard feelings between the employers and the employees,” he said.
The letter claimed the firm is representing a group of over 100 healthcare workers, including physicians and nurses, from the two institutions. The healthcare workers in question were not identified; the letter said “anonymity is maintained at this time to avoid reprisals.”
Faircloth said in a phone interview the number is nearing 200 and he expects it to exceed that by the time the Sept. 17 deadline arrives as more interested parties contact his office. The attorney said the issue first began brewing a couple weeks ago after Lafayette healthcare workers began informally organizing among themselves over their discontent around the mandate.
“...our clients respect the boundary between individual autonomy and the delivery of healthcare, and that the latter must ultimately yield to the former, as Louisiana law recognizes. They respectfully ask that [you] do the same,” the letter said.
Ochsner Lafayette General, and all other facilities in the Ochsner Health System, announced Aug. 24 they would require all physicians, providers and employees be vaccinated against COVID-19, a day after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s full authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.
Employees must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 29. The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is a two-dose vaccination with 21 days between the first and second shot.
The Ochsner Lafayette General mandate applies to all full-time and part-time clinical and corporate employees. Vendors, medical and allied health students, contract employees, PRN, agency nurses and volunteers must also demonstrate proof of vaccination before working at or completing rounds at an Ochsner Health facility, a statement from the company said.
On Aug. 3, Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System, which includes Our Lady of Lourdes, announced it would require COVID-19 vaccinations for all team members, employed providers, residents, students in clinical rotations, contract staff and volunteers, a system statement said.
Specific implementation schedules are in place for the various levels of employees, with the timeline concluding in December.
Faircloth and his co-signers argued in the letter that the mandate violates employees’ right to make informed decisions about their healthcare and their right to refuse care. The letter cited cases in various Louisiana courts where an individual’s right to refuse care was upheld. They further argued a business should not be able to take action against employees for refusing to participate in an employment act that is against the law, which they believe the COVID-19 mandates are.
The letter claimed the threat of legal action was “not a referendum on the risks of COVID-19, the efficacy of the vaccines, the availability of treatments options, or the intentions of anyone.”
“We urge [you] to step back from the intensity of the public debate over COVID-19 and recognize the legal implications of its actions,” the attorneys wrote.
In response to the letter, Ochsner Lafayette General CEO Patrick Gandry released a statement noting that healthcare workers have struggled on the frontline while also contracting the novel coronavirus because of community spread. Many have been unable to work and care for patients during peaks in viral spread in the community, he said.
“We now have a vaccine that is not only safe and effective, but also has been approved by the FDA. Our healthcare workers protect our families and our communities, and we appreciate their many sacrifices. While we are empathetic to those who do not agree with a vaccine mandate, we will not change our stance. We stand firm that vaccines are the way we end this pandemic,” Gandy said.
Faircloth said Ochsner Lafayette General’s swift refusal to reconsider almost felt like a dare to the employees to sue.
Dr. Henry Kaufman, interim chief medical officer of Lourdes, spoke about the system’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate outside the hospital on Aug. 25 while protesters demonstrated nearby in opposition of the vaccine requirement.
Kaufman said other vaccinations are mandated for employment at the system and the addition of an FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccine to that list is not outlandish. He said the hospital and associated facilities will remain firm in their stance around the mandate because they believe it’s the safest path forward, both for the health and safety of staff and the patients they treat daily.
"None of our nurses or team members are expendable," Kaufman said. "We want to keep everybody here, but we want to do it in the safest possible way. We've lost more nurses and team members, at this point, from COVID infections than we have from any attrition from the vaccination."
Elisabeth Arnold, spokesperson for Our Lady of Lourdes, confirmed the medical center was in receipt of the letter from Faircloth and co-signers and it was being reviewed by the hospital’s general counsel.