August 25, 2021

Judge denies restraining order in lawsuit against vaccine requirement

Marjorie Childress, NMID

United States Courthouse in Albuquerque, New Mexico

A federal lawsuit against New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, over one of her public health orders, is moving forward. But the judge in the case dismissed a request to issue a temporary restraining order to block vaccine requirements for health care workers and state fair attendees. 

U.S. District Court Judge Martha Vázquez, through an order on Monday, fast-tracked the lawsuit against Lujan Grisham, but said there was not enough justification to warrant a restraining order. The suit was filed by two New Mexico residents who argued that a recent public health order requiring vaccines for certain activities violates both the New Mexico and U.S. Constitution. 

In her order, Vázquez wrote that the two plaintiffs, Jennifer Blackford of Rio Rancho and Talisha Valdez of Union County, still have options under the public health order. 

“While alleging that the [public health order] would prevent Blackford from retaining her employment and Valdez from entering the State Fair, the Complaint ignores the existence of the exemptions to the PHO’s vaccination requirements,” Vázquez wrote. “As noted above, the PHO allows for three exemptions to the vaccination requirements for hospital workers and State Fair attendees, including an exemption that can be supported by a mere statement as to the manner in which the administration of a vaccination conflicts with the beliefs of the individual.”

The public health order, in part, requires proof of vaccination to attend the New Mexico State Fair. It also requires healthcare workers to provide proof of vaccination. 

But the order also provides exemptions and an alternative to getting vaccinated. Fairgoers and healthcare workers who qualify for a health-based or religious exemption will be required to take a weekly COVID-19 test. Vázquez wrote in her order that the plaintiffs’ attorney, Blair Dunn, did not adequately show how his clients would not qualify for a religious exemption. 

“The Complaint provides no factual allegations as to why none of the exemptions would apply to the named Plaintiffs, both of whom have clearly asserted that administration of the COVID-19 vaccine does, indeed, conflict with their beliefs,” Vázquez wrote. 

In response, Dunn filed a motion asking Vázquez to reconsider her order. Dunn, in his motion to reconsider, mostly returned to arguments in the initial complaint but added that Vázquez mistakenly assumed his clients were seeking exemptions or even qualified for them. 

“The Court has misapprehended that the Plaintiffs are seeking or are eligible for an exemption and thus are in actuality facing termination because they do not fall under one of the exemptions in its Order of August 23, 2021,” Dunn wrote. 

Vázquez had not responded to Dunn’s reconsideration request by Wednesday, but in her expedited briefing order, she called on Lujan Grisham’s office to reply to the initial complaint by August 30 and Dunn to answer that reply by Sept. 1.  From there Vázquez will determine if and when a hearing is required.