Updated August 13, 2021
United States Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett decided not to interfere with underlying courts' decisions regarding Indiana University's COVID-19 vaccination mandate in the case Klaassen v. Trustees of Indiana University. Signaling that the Supreme Court does not view the controversy to be a close case, Justice Barrett, who oversees emergency appeals from Indiana, denied the plaintiffs' application for Supreme Court review of their preliminary injunction without comments, without seeking a response from the state, and without referring the request to the full court for a vote. Consequently, Indiana University's COVID-19 mandatory vaccination policy will remain in place. Institutions of higher education should review the decisions by the Seventh Circuit and District Court of Indiana in full and stay up to date with federal, state, and local laws and guidance regarding COVID-19, reopening requirements, and mandatory vaccination policies.
As we previously reported, on July 21, 2021 a federal judge upheld Indiana University's policy of requiring its students to be vaccinated against COVID-19. On August 2, 2021, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the District Court's ruling, stating in its decision, "Starting next semester, all students at Indiana University must be vaccinated against COVID-19 unless they are exempt for religious or medical reasons." The appellate court's ruling provides further legal support for the mandatory vaccination requirements of many institutions of higher education (IHEs).
District Court Decision
Eight students at Indiana University sought a preliminary injunction against the university's COVID-19 vaccination mandate, arguing that it violates their liberties protected under the Fourteenth Amendment, including a right to personal autonomy and bodily integrity, and a right to reject medical treatment. In denying the plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction, the District Court held the Fourteenth Amendment permits Indiana University to institute and enforce a mandatory vaccination policy because it is protecting the legitimate public health interest for its students, faculty, and staff. The plaintiffs then appealed the District Court's decision.
Court of Appeals Decision
On August 2, 2021, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld the District Court's denial of a preliminary injunction in Klaassen, et al. v. Trustees of Indiana University, No. 21-2326. Relying on the same precedential case as the District Court, the Court of Appeals held that because Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905) holds that a state may require all members of the public to be vaccinated against smallpox, "there can't be a constitutional problem with vaccination against SARS-CoV-2." The Seventh Circuit takes it a step further, opining that this case is "easier than Jacobson" for two reasons. First, Indiana University provides for accommodations for adults who require an exception to the vaccination, which the vaccination requirement in Jacobson did not have. And second, Indiana University's mandate does not require every Indiana resident to be vaccinated, only the students who wish to attend Indiana University. Thus, the plaintiffs "have ample educational opportunities" at other IHEs that do not mandate the COVID-19 vaccination. The Court also interestingly notes that the conditions of higher education already include an implicit surrender of property and other rights—outside of vaccination requirements—as the plaintiff already has to surrender things like tuition and their own reading and writing preferences when they submit to professors' assignments.
Important Takeaways for IHEs
As we suggested in the last alert, IHEs—both public and private—should take heed of these decisions. While these decisions are in the public IHE context, the same tenets will likely be seen again in later decisions applying to private institutions. These underlying premises include ensuring the safety of every student, faculty, and staff; the students' freedom to choose an IHE without a mandatory vaccination policy; and the availability of accommodations for students with a religious or medical exception. When creating a mandatory vaccination policy or justifying the implementation of such a policy, these tenets should be underscored. Following the guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of Education, and the relevant state health departments, as Indiana University did, is another crucial step in creating a mandatory vaccination policy.
IHEs should review the recent decisions in full and stay up to date with federal, state, and local laws and guidance regarding COVID-19, reopening requirements, and mandatory vaccination policies. We will continue to monitor relevant case law for additional guidance. IHEs with questions about the decisions and their implications should feel free to contact the authors of this article or any other member of Venable's Labor and Employment Group.