The New York Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that 10 New York City teachers previously fired for refusing the COVID-19 shot according to their religious convictions must be reinstated effective immediately. The Court’s order stated the city denied the teachers’ religious accommodations in an “arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable” manner awarding not just their jobs back but also all backpay, seniority, benefits, and attorney’s fees.
The Court’s ruling stated that in October 2021, New York City officials mandated the shot for all Department of Education (DOE) employees and initially allowed no consideration for religious exemptions. When the city’s mandate was temporarily blocked in court, the city then instituted an accommodation policy only to later deny nearly 7,000 religious accommodation requests with the same auto-generated email. Then the city convened a panel to give “fresh consideration” to the requests they previously denied. However, the panel reviewed only 600 of the requests and upheld their denials. The panel cited that the accommodations would place an “undue hardship” on the city.
State Supreme Court Judge Ralph J. Porzio determined the city acted in absence of a “rational reason” and in an “arbitrary and capricious manner” by denying most accommodations with a lack of an explanation as to why.
Judge Porzio also determined the city’s “undue hardship” claim was equally in error, stating “the decision to summarily deny the classroom teachers…based on undue hardship, without any further evidence of an individualized analysis, is arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable. As such, each classroom teacher…is entitled to a religious exemption from the vaccine mandate,” wrote Judge Porzio.
New York City’s shot mandate was in effect from Oct. 1, 2021, to Feb. 10, 2023. While this ruling only reinstates 10 teachers, thousands of educators in New York City lost their jobs. The 10 plaintiffs in the case also sought a motion for a class-action certification for the 7,000 DOE employees who were also denied religious accommodations. The teachers argued that all educators in the class were negatively affected by the same errors and that all religious exemption denials were “arbitrary and capricious.” However, Judge Porzio declined to award class certification noting that the thousands of accommodation requests were not all adjudicated using the same processes and procedures where the same class action standard could be applied. Judge Porzio stated to do so would be “overboard.”
Despite the lack of class certification, the teachers’ attorney Sujata Gibson stated the ruling opens the door for all other teachers denied religious accommodation to obtain relief.