Maine health workers lose anonymity in vaccine mandate lawsuit

An appeals court on Thursday rejected a request by nine Maine health care workers to remain anonymous in their lawsuit against Gov. Janet Mills and others over a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for health care workers.

The 14-page decision, obtained by the Portland Press Herald Thursday night, gives the plaintiffs and their attorneys until Friday, July 8, to either comply with the order, with their identities unsealed, or appeal the decision to the Court of Appeals for the First District in Boston to the Supreme Court.

Holly Mead, a spokeswoman for Liberty Counsel, which represents the health care workers — identified in court filings in John Does and Jane Does — said Thursday evening that Liberty Counsel was still weighing its options. Liberty Counsel, a conservative, faith-based law firm based in Florida, is involved in several lawsuits against Maine and other states over COVID-19 vaccine mandates and restrictions. Nationally, the firm also opposed safe and legal access to abortion and same-sex marriage.

“We are currently evaluating the situation and have not yet made a decision,” Mead responded in an email when asked if Liberty’s customers would appeal.

The nine plaintiffs filed their complaint in federal court last August, before the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for workers at certain health care facilities in Maine took effect on October 29, 2021. The plaintiffs argued that it was their religious right to refuse the vaccine over their belief that fetal stem cells from abortions were used to develop vaccines. Maine’s mandate does not allow religious exemptions.

The lawsuit named Gov. Janet Mills, Jean Lambreau, commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, and Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as several health agencies.

The case prompted several Maine newspapers to intervene in an effort to have the plaintiffs identified. The Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal, Morning Sentinel and Sun Journal filed a motion in November 2021 challenging the group’s right to file the complaint anonymously. The newspapers argued that “plaintiffs’ alleged fear of harm no longer outweighs the public’s interest in open litigation,” according to court documents.

On May 31, U.S. District Court Judge John D. Levy ruled that the plaintiffs could not remain anonymous and ordered them to file an amended complaint naming them by June 7. In his decision, Levy said that “plaintiffs’ religious beliefs and the resulting medical decisions not to be vaccinated against COVID-19, whether considered individually or together, do not present such substantial privacy interests as to support pseudonymous proceedings.” Ultimately, however, there is an almost complete lack of evidence that the fears they express are objectively reasonable.

The plaintiffs appealed the June 7 deadline, and on June 17, Levy gave the plaintiffs until July 8 to comply with his ruling, a decision that appeals court judges upheld Thursday.

“Since plaintiffs’ likelihood of success on the merits rests on their showing a reasonable fear of harm, it follows that plaintiffs have not established a threat of irreparable harm.” Denial of stay alone does not constitute irreparable harm under these circumstances,” the judges wrote. “The public interest and the interests of the intervening media favor denial of a stay on the presumption of public access.”

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