A federal judge has remanded a lawsuit aimed at Ascension St. John Health System’s employee vaccination requirement back to state court, where it is subject to a temporary restraining order.
U.S. District Judge Terence Kern, in a 12-page opinion and order issued late Tuesday, sent the case brought by Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor back to Tulsa County District Court.
Ascension St. John had attempted to remove the case from state court, arguing that issues raised by O’Connor in the lawsuit should be handled in federal court.
But Kern said Ascension failed to demonstrate that an interim final rule under consideration by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services limited the case from being heard in a state court.
“As such the amended complaint provides no basis for subject matter jurisdiction and the case is remanded to Tulsa County District Court, Oklahoma,” Kern wrote in his opinion and order.
Tulsa County Presiding District Judge William LaFortune has scheduled a Dec. 1 hearing to consider whether a temporary injunction should be granted while O’Connor investigates claims of religious discrimination by Ascension St. John employees.
The state had sought to move the case back to state court. Among its reasons, the state said it removed any federal claims when it filed an amended complaint after Ascension removed the case to the federal court.
“After the amended complaint was filed in this court removing any and all references to federal law, leaving only the enforcement of the State of Oklahoma’s own statutes and the protections of its citizens’ rights under Oklahoma law, this court lost jurisdiction under Article III, the Tenth and the Eleventh Amendments to the Constitution,” the state wrote in its motion to the federal court.
Ascension said the state’s attempts to halt the vaccination requirement violates the federal Interim Final Rule of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which preempts and prohibits states from broadening COVID-19 vaccine shot requirements.
Ascension claimed that federal courts have jurisdiction because the state’s original complaint contained both federal and state claims, adding that the state’s later amending its complaint to eliminate any federal law claims does not solve the problem for the state.
“Plaintiff cannot force a remand (back to state court) by amending its complaint post-removal to eliminate the basis for jurisdiction,” Ascension wrote in its pleading.
Ascension also requested that the federal court dissolve the temporary restraining order issued in Tulsa County District Court, saying it was issued after attorneys for the health care company issued notice that it would be moving the case to federal court.
“The TRO was issued after notice that Defendants were removing the case to federal court due to federal question, and without allowing the Defendants opportunity to brief or argue the issues,” Ascension wrote in its filing.
The state also has not established the irreparable harm the vaccine rule would have to cause before it was entitled to a temporary restraining order, Ascension St. John claimed.
Ascension also claimed that LaFortune improperly entered the temporary restraining order despite attorneys for the health care system not having been given a chance to argue against the order and after being informed that the company planned to move the case to federal court.
The state, meanwhile, parsed the timing of the events immediately after the filing of the lawsuit to argue that the TRO is valid.
“Clearly the TRO was properly granted by the state court before defendants filed their Notice of Removal” to federal court, the state claims.
The state also claimed it hadn’t signed off on the case being moved to federal court, which it claims is a requirement under the Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution.
Your opinions on COVID-19: A collection of letters to the editor
From the letters: People should think of long-term effects of COVID-19. Mayor Bynum should reconsider mask mandate stance. What number of COVID-19 deaths is acceptable to Gov. Stitt? Here’s a look at some recent letters to the editor on the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I’m not saying we will see late developing problems from COVID, but I’m wondering why anybody would take that chance when there is a vaccine available to stop or at least lessen the infection," says Bartlesville resident Clova Abrahamson.
"Having first-hand experience in this matter, as well as many others of my vintage, I can tell you that if getting a shot and wearing a mask could keep you from getting killed in battle as well as satisfy your obligation to your country, it just seems like a no-brainer," says Miami, Okla., resident Stephen Abraham.
"Help Oklahomans weather this pandemic more successfully and stop fighting aggressive vaccination," says Jenks resident Jim Wolf.
"Hiding behind all these excuses are not changing COVID-19’s hold on our world," writes Broken Arrow resident Joyce Jones-Hallman.
"You are merely being asked for a minor inconvenience to help slow a serious virus that is killing many of our citizens,"writes Tulsa resident Leonard Brehm.
"With so many people unwilling to be vaccinated, the need for a mask mandate is clear," writes Tulsa resident William G. Hollingsworth.
"Oh, how we would love for all to help us live a normal life again," writes Broken Arrow resident Donna Iseminger.
"To my knowledge, Gov. Stitt has always encouraged anyone who wants to wear a mask or feels safer wearing a mask can by all means wear a mask, anywhere, anytime," says Bixby resident Sam Woodard.
"Many Oklahoma employers, including Tulsa Public Schools, have adopted standards to protect their employees, students and customers despite Gov. Stitt," writes Tulsa resident Robert Leland.
"The refusal by so many to receive the proven-to-work vaccine is no laughing matter," writes Tulsa resident Phil Graham.
"We have attended school and traveled to many countries, all requiring government vaccine mandates of one kind or another," says Cleveland, Okla., resident Cecil Sterne.
"Why not extend that mandate to those receiving government benefits?" asks Tulsa resident Edmund Seiders.
"Why can't the Tulsa Social Security Office figure out how to reopen safely?" asks Bixy resident Lynn Robertson.
"Too many good, decent Oklahomans are unnecessarily dead," writes Tulsa resident Tom Neal.
"Life is continuing on pretty much as usual where we visited. One might think that masking and vaccinations work," writes Tulsa resident Barbara Smallwood.
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