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New York State Unified Court System Secures Appellate Victory in Vaccine Mandate Challenge

Paul, Weiss secured a major appellate victory for the New York State Unified Court System (UCS) in a lawsuit brought by several court employees challenging the UCS's COVID-19 vaccine mandate on religious grounds. The New York Supreme Court’s Appellate Division, First Department unanimously affirmed a lower court’s 2022 dismissal of the employees’ petition in its entirety.

The plaintiffs brought an Article 78 petition challenging the UCS's determinations that they failed to qualify for religious exemptions from the vaccine mandate. They claimed that the UCS’s actions violated their constitutional rights to religious freedom and due process, and exceeded the UCS’s authority. In August 2022, the New York Supreme Court, Rockland County, dismissed the petition, finding the claims to be meritless.

In its affirmance, the First Department held that the UCS's vaccine mandate and its religious exemption process were not “arbitrary and capricious” because they did not infringe on the employees’ free exercise rights or due process rights under the federal or state constitutions, and because the UCS had constitutional authority to issue the vaccine mandate. Because the mandate was neutral and generally applicable, the First Department applied rational basis review and held that the vaccine mandate was “rationally related to the legitimate goals of slowing the spread of COVID-19 and fully reopening courts to promote efficient access to justice.” The First Department also rejected the employees’ claim that their substantive or procedural due process rights had been violated, finding that the employees “were not forced to undergo any medical treatment or procedure unwillingly,” were not “completely prohibited from engaging in [their] chosen profession,” and “were given the opportunity to submit proof of vaccination or request religious exemptions.” Lastly, the First Department held that “the State Constitution supports the authority of UCS and its administration to implement the vaccine mandate,” which “was fundamentally a policy decision relating to the primary mission of UCS” of “provid[ing] an accessible forum to every litigant seeking redress of grievances.”

The Paul, Weiss team included litigation partners Bruce Birenboim, Liza Velazquez, Gregory Laufer (who argued the appeal) and Lina Dagnew and associates Matteo Godi, Malik Gerdes and Courtney Wiesner.

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