Anti-vaxxers like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. are backing employee lawsuits over COVID-19 vaccine mandates

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a white man with gray hair wearing a suit, appears outside of a courthouse with his mouth open in speech and his arms raised in the air.

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Jennifer Bridges worked as a nurse at Houston Methodist hospital for nearly seven years, until her employer became one of the first in the country to require staffers to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Bridges was fired on Tuesday after refusing to get vaccinated.

Now Bridges is the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against the hospital. She and more than 100 of her former colleagues allege the COVID-19 vaccines are experimental in nature because they were approved under emergency use authorization. Bridges likens the vaccine initiative to the Nazis’ forced medical trials on Jewish concentration-camp prisoners during World War II.

“In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs falsely claimed that the COVID-19 vaccines are not safe. With more than 300 million doses administered in the United States alone, the vaccines have proven to be extremely safe,” Houston Methodist CEO Marc Boom said in a statement.

“The number of both positive cases and hospitalizations continue to drop around the country, proving that the vaccines are working in keeping our community protected,” he added.

COVID-19 vaccines manufactured by Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and Moderna have been deemed safe and effective by the Food and Drug Administration, which granted emergency use authorization for all three shots. Pain at the injection site and flu-like side symptoms that typically last no more than several days are common. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone over the age of 12 get vaccinated for COVID-19 as soon as possible.

Bridges said she initially protested the mandate with an internal petition. When her efforts went nowhere, she began to consider legal action. A leading vaccine-resistance group, the Informed Consent Action Network, led her to a lawyer willing to take her case, she said.

“I literally just sat at home one day, just Googling anything I could think of,” Bridges said. “A lot of people were like, ‘Hey look up this website,’ and so I went to the ICAN website, saw the lawyers they used, reached out to their firm, and they said I needed a Texas lawyer.”

Bridges is part of a growing group of employees taking legal action to fight COVID-19 vaccine mandates by using the argument that the drugs have not been approved by the FDA. But behind Bridges and other laypeople putting their jobs on the line is a network of lawyers and vaccine-resistance groups — including a nonprofit founded by the anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. — helping them to navigate the courts. 

Anti-vaxxers hope to use COVID-19 lawsuits to grow the movement

At least four federal lawsuits have been filed against employers over COVID-19 vaccine mandates, and each has strong ties to the anti-vaccine movement. In addition to Bridges’ lawsuit, cases have been brought so far in Los Angeles, New Mexico, and North Carolina, and more are expected to crop up as businesses and schools fully reopen.

Bridges said she was unsure how to dispute her employer’s directive until she saw an advertisement seeking plaintiffs by ICAN, a nonprofit founded by the controversial TV producer and talk show host Del Bigtree that is dedicated to disputing vaccine requirements.

The anti-vax movement has historically focused on spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories about the efficacy and safety of children’s vaccines using scientifically debunked propaganda. Many known anti-vaxxers directly profit from products presented as alternatives to mainstream medicine. COVID-19 vaccine skeptics are a ripe new client base.

“For law firms willing to take anti-vaxxers’ tainted money, this is a great opportunity,” said Imran Ahmed, the CEO and founder of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a nonprofit that combats disinformation online.

The ICAN advertisement directed Bridges to the Manhattan law firm Siri & Glimstad, she said. The law firm received $1.3 million from the nonprofit as an independent contractor in 2019, the most recent year for which its tax filing is available.

Siri & Glimstad, which staffs a team of lawyers dedicated to litigation involving vaccines, has been at the center of recent lawsuits against COVID-19 vaccines.

The law firm serves as cocounsel in a North Carolina lawsuit filed by former Durham County Deputy Christopher Neve against Sheriff Clarence Birkhead. Neve alleges Birkhead fired him for refusing the vaccine. The sheriff’s department has filed a motion for dismissal in the case. 

Siri advised Bridges to find a lawyer in Texas, she told Insider. She’s now represented by Jared Ryker Woodfill, the former Harris County GOP chairman and president of the Conservative Republicans of Texas, which is deemed an anti-LGBT hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Woodfill represented plaintiffs in a multitude of lawsuits related to pandemic protocols last year, including a group of bar owners who sued Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in an effort to upend his shutdown order. Woodfill could not be reached for comment. 

Legal experts say the cases against COVID-19 vaccines face an uphill battle in the courts.

“Federal judges in particular are likely to be sympathetic to the positions of employers and sympathetic to the notion of vaccination,” Robert Nichols, a Houston labor and employment lawyer, said.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has also declared that employers can legally mandate the COVID-19 vaccine.

Robert Kennedy Jr.’s anti-vax nonprofit threatens more lawsuits

Legal fees for vaccine-related litigation are often paid for by nonprofits dedicated to funding anti-vaccine lawsuits, such as Idaho’s Health Freedom Defense Fund, which is backing a lawsuit filed by employees of the Los Angeles Unified School District over its COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

A leading voice among anti-vaxxers is Kennedy, who promotes his anti-vaccine view through the Children’s Health Defense fund, a nonprofit he founded in 2018. Kennedy was barred from Instagram earlier this year for sharing debunked claims about the COVID-19 vaccine.

The Children’s Health Defense fund in January published a blog post urging readers who want to litigate over COVID-19 vaccine requirements to contact ICAN. 

Kennedy told Insider the organization had been advising lawyers fighting the COVID-19 mandates and had other litigation plans in the works. He said his nonprofit was planning cases against Rutgers University and the Los Angeles Unified School District over vaccine mandates.

He also said Children’s Health Defense planned to send letters to each of the roughly 400 colleges and universities that have said they will require students and/or employees to be vaccinated.

The anti-disinformation groups Center for Countering Digital Hate and Anti-Vax Watch have both named Kennedy as one of the top 12 purveyors of vaccine falsehoods online who together are responsible for almost two-thirds of the anti-vaccine rhetoric on social media.

Lawsuits against COVID-19 vaccine requirements are likely to drag on 

In New Mexico, Isaac Legaretta and 20 anonymous coworkers sued the Doña Ana County Detention Center in Las Cruces in February, which was the first known case against a vaccine requirement. Legaretta eventually resigned, and the county has since filed a motion to dismiss the case.

Legaretta’s lawyer declined to make him available for an interview and scoffed at the question of why his client did not want to take the vaccine.

“If you don’t know the answer to that question, you have done very little research on the issue of this vaccine. Have you studied any of the side effects or the reason these adverse effects are happening?” said Jonathan Diener, an attorney with New Mexico Stands Up, a nonprofit dedicated to litigating pandemic protocols.

More than 150 million people in the US have been fully vaccinated for COVID-19, and the CDC and FDA report that serious side effects are rare.

In Houston, US District Judge Lynn N. Hughes tossed the case against Houston Methodist on June 13 in a ruling that condemned Bridges’ Nazi-experiment comparison.

“Methodist is trying to do their business of saving lives without giving them the COVID-19 virus,” Hughes wrote, referring to Houston Methodist’s employees.

Bridges has vowed to take the case to the Supreme Court, and her lawyer has already filed an appeal with the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals.

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