Third Department Appellate Division Upholds Denial of COVID Exemptions For Nonjudicial Court Employees

Appellate Judge Upholds NY Court System’s Denial of COVID-19 Vaccine Exemptions

by Brian Lee, New York Law Journal, February 8, 2024

In the Matter of Nicole Ventresca-Cohen v Janet DiFiore  Third Dept Decision

Third Department Justice Michael Lynch’s opinion gave weight to a court official’s affidavit that explained the process for evaluating exemption requests and explaining each denial.

February 08, 2024 at 03:47 PM

A New York appeals court on Thursday rejected a lawsuit by 29 nonjudicial court employees who challenged their employers’ denial of religious exemptions from a mandatory pandemic-related vaccination program in 2021.

In the CPLR Article 78 proceeding, a trial court in November 2022 partially granted the plaintiffs’ request.

But on Thursday, the Appellate Division, Third Department dismissed the case in its entirety, based largely on the submission of an affidavit by a top court administrator that explained a blind review process that was solely in place to determine whether the applicant’s opposition to being vaccinated was due to “a sincerely held religious belief.”

Justice Michael Lynch wrote the decision. Justice John Egan, Jr. issued a partial dissent.

The vaccination mandate was set in place, without evidentiary hearings, by the New York State Unified Court System under then-Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, on an emergency basis as the coronavirus pandemic was in full force.

The court system had announced on Aug. 25, 2021, that, except for exempted workers, employees would be fired if they weren’t vaccinated by Sept. 27, 2021.

The suit said the group of plaintiffs knew of at least six other nonjudicial employees who were granted exemptions.

One of the claimants explained that as an Orthodox Christian, he objected to the COVID-19 vaccine based on the use of fetal cell lines derived from aborted human fetuses during development and testing.

The affidavit explained the evaluation process and provided an explanation for each denial.

The applicants were required to address their past and future uses of other over-the-counter drugs, prescription medications and vaccinations that were also tested by using fetal cell lines, and to explain any inconsistencies with their uses of those drugs and vaccines.

Lynch wrote: “From our perspective, the Committee could and did rationally conclude that an applicant’s continued and/or contemplated use of other medications or vaccinations tested on fetal cell lines—including the current version of medications originating before fetal cell lines were developed, but now tested utilizing fetal cell lines—while refusing to take the COVID-19 vaccination on that very basis, reflected an inconsistency undermining the sincerity of that applicant’s religious beliefs.”

Pedro Morales represented the court system, while Civil Service Employees Association lawyer Steven Klein represented the court workers.

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