On January 7, 2022—the same day the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments concerning the OSHA workplace vaccine mandate—the Louisiana Supreme Court (“LA Supreme Court” or the “Court”) upheld a private employer’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, relying on the well-established Louisiana employment-at-will doctrine. The LA Supreme Court found that a private employer is entitled to set whatever conditions and terms of employment it wants, including a COVID-19 vaccine mandate, so long as those conditions and terms do not run afoul of federal and state laws.

Brief Background

In Hayes v. University Health Shreveport, 21-01601 (La. Jan 7, 2022), several employees of the University Health Shreveport, LLC d/b/a Ochsner LSU Health Shreveport and LSU Health-St. Mary Medical Center, LLC (“Ochsner”) challenged a mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policy that required all employees to be fully vaccinated by October 29, 2021, absent any religious or medical accommodation exemptions. If employees failed to comply with the COVID-19 vaccine policy, employees were subject to disciplinary action, including but not limited to termination. The employees sought injunctive and declaratory relief to prohibit Ochsner from enforcing such policy and asserted that (1) La. R.S. 40:1159.7 of the Louisiana Medical Consent Law establishes their right to refuse medical treatment, and (2) La. Const. art. I, § 5 invokes their right to privacy.

Dismissing the employees’ claims, the underlying trial court analogized an employer’s right to require a vaccine mandate to uniform requirements and found that even if an employee argues a right to freedom of speech to violate the employer’s uniform policy, employers may still enforce its policy under the Louisiana employment-at-will doctrine. The appellate court found the lower court’s denial of the temporary restraining order and sustaining Ochsner’s exception of no cause of action was in error. In support of its opinion, the appellate court found that employees had stated a cause of action for a preliminary injunction and declaratory relief concerning the disciplinary action taken against them for not complying with the mandate because, “notwithstanding the employment-at-will doctrine, [disciplinary action] would unlawfully abridge certain alleged constitutional rights.”

Ochsner filed a writ application to the LA Supreme Court, which was granted, seeking guidance on whether employees of a private healthcare provider could state a cause of action for a constitutional violation caused by the vaccine mandate.

The Louisiana Supreme Court’s Decision

Relying on the well-established employment-at-will doctrine, the LA Supreme Court dismissed the employees’ claims and noted that their arguments were “unavailing.” The Court emphasized that the employment-at-will doctrine (LSA-C.C. art. 2747) permits employers to dismiss at-will employees at any time for any reason, unless it violates existing federal or state law. In rejecting the employee’s statutory and constitutional arguments, the Court held that:

(i) the employees’ assertion that persons may refuse to consent to medical treatment under La. R.S. 40:1159.7 of the Louisiana Medical Consent Law fails as that provision only applies to the healthcare provider-patient relationship, not an employer-employee relationship, and

(ii) the employees’ right to privacy assertion under La. Const. Art. I, § 5 fails because the right to reject medical treatment (previously recognized by the Court to be contained in the right to privacy) only applies to State actors, not private entities like Ochsner.

The Court further posited a significant view of the employment-at-will doctrine by highlighting that “[a] corollary of the employment-at-will doctrine is that courts are not quasi-human resources departments that re-evaluate personnel decisions or the wisdom of those determinations, so long as there is no violation of ‘federal and state laws which proscribe certain reasons for dismissal of an at-will employee.’”

Key Takeaways

As the Court in Hayes firmly stated, a private employer’s decision to discipline its employees for policy violations should not be questioned absent any violation of federal and state law. The Court’s decision underscores the reciprocal relationship between employees and private employers in an at-will relationship that gives broad liberty to both parties. As private employers’ vaccine mandates are challenged throughout the country, this decision may serve as persuasive dicta to shield private employers who seek to enforce mandatory vaccine policies in at-will employment states.

Photo of Nicole Eichberger Nicole Eichberger

Nicole A. Eichberger is a partner in the Labor and Employment Law Department and a member of the Class & Collective Actions and Wage and Hour Groups. Nici is an experienced trial lawyer and represents clients in all types of employment-related matters, from…

Nicole A. Eichberger is a partner in the Labor and Employment Law Department and a member of the Class & Collective Actions and Wage and Hour Groups. Nici is an experienced trial lawyer and represents clients in all types of employment-related matters, from single-plaintiff and complex employment to large, complex class and collective actions alleging discrimination, non-compete violations, and wage and hour disputes.

Nici has significant experience assisting clients in the defense of numerous class and collective actions. She frequently counsels employers, fiduciaries, and trustees on employment, wage-and-hour and benefit issues.

Photo of Atoyia Harris Atoyia Harris

Atoyia Harris is a special employment law counsel in the Labor and Employment Department and a member of the Employment Litigation & Counseling Group. With bench trial, jury trial, and administrative hearing experience, Atoyia approaches each matter strategically to provide the best result…

Atoyia Harris is a special employment law counsel in the Labor and Employment Department and a member of the Employment Litigation & Counseling Group. With bench trial, jury trial, and administrative hearing experience, Atoyia approaches each matter strategically to provide the best result for her clients. She has successfully defended matters on a wide variety of issues.

Atoyia advises clients and conducts investigations and trainings on issues related to discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. Her practice also includes counseling clients on reductions-in-force, Covid-19 related matters, issues arising out of social movements including Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, and other sensitive employment issues.

Atoyia is co-chair of the Firm’s Black Lawyers Affinity Group, serves as a member of the Firm’s Associate Council, and is on the Proskauer Women’s Alliance Steering Committee.

Active in the New Orleans legal community, Atoyia is a member of the Young Lawyers Board for the Federal Bar Association’s New Orleans Chapter and other organizations. She is also a member of the national Defense Research Institute’s Membership Committee and Diversity and Inclusion Planning Committee.

Atoyia received her J.D. with an International Law Certification from Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. Atoyia served as the Moot Court Selection Chair and staff member of the Loyola Law and Technology Journal. While in law school, Atoyia interned as a law clerk for the Honorable Jay C. Zainey at the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana and the Honorable Robin Giarrusso at the Orleans Parish Civil District Court. Atoyia was also a member of the award-wining Robert F. Wagner Labor and Employment Moot Court Team.

Prior to law school, Atoyia received her Bachelor of Music in Industry Studies with emphasis in classical piano from Loyola University New Orleans and was member of the Loyola University women’s basketball team.

Photo of E. Sydney Cone E. Sydney Cone

Sydney Cone earned her J.D. from Tulane University Law School, where she was the Senior Online Editor of the Tulane Maritime Law Journal and co-president of Tulane Women in the Law.

Prior to law school, Sydney was a paralegal for Lankler, Siffert, and…

Sydney Cone earned her J.D. from Tulane University Law School, where she was the Senior Online Editor of the Tulane Maritime Law Journal and co-president of Tulane Women in the Law.

Prior to law school, Sydney was a paralegal for Lankler, Siffert, and Wohl, LLP, focusing on white collar criminal and civil litigation.