Update 10/12/2022: This article has been updated to reflect comments from the UC Office of the President.
A doctor and former UCLA employee filed a class action lawsuit against the Regents of the University of California on Oct. 5 over his termination for refusing to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
The plaintiff, Christopher Rake, alleged that the university’s vaccine mandate violated his privacy and bodily autonomy and is seeking damages for himself and other UC employees affected by the vaccine mandate. Rake was terminated March 1 after being placed on administrative leave Oct. 4, 2021, according to the complaint.
“It has to be something that is decided between a patient and their own doctor, not by an institution,” said Warner Mendenhall, one of Rake’s attorneys, about COVID-19 vaccination. “All of these folks who were fired should regain their jobs and be reemployed by the University of California system.”
A vaccine mandate is important to protect people in a university setting, according to John Swartzberg, clinical professor emeritus of infectious diseases and vaccinology in the campus School of Public Health. Vaccination helps keep both individuals and populations safe, Swartzberg noted.
Rake refused to receive COVID-19 vaccination on the basis of claims that there is “great variation” in vaccine quality and as evidence of “material contaminants” present in some batches. He alleged that vaccines have “negative efficacy,” suggesting that they could make vaccinated people more susceptible to COVID-19 infections and other illnesses.
However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective and meet “rigorous” federal safety standards.
“This is a perfect example of how people cherry pick data to paint a picture around that data that really has little to do with the data around vaccines,” Swartzberg said. “This is a (alleged) distortion of the epidemiological data we have. It is clear that vaccination reduces hospitalization rates and death rates.”
Stett Holbrook, a spokesperson for the UC Office of the President, declined to comment on the lawsuit, noting only that COVID-19 poses an ongoing and significant health risk to communities.
Rake also alleged in the lawsuit that the university is aware of “facts” that suggest the vaccine mandate is “fundamentally flawed,” and that the university has allegedly suppressed this information to protect its financial interests.
“I’ve been very involved in UC Berkeley’s public health advisory committee, and I know of no such facts,” Swartzberg alleged.
Mendenhall also claimed that the right to privacy in the California Constitution protects Rake and other employees from employer involvement in their medical decisions.
However, these legal arguments have a very low chance of success in court, according to Erwin Chemerinsky, UC Berkeley School of Law dean and author of a paper on the constitutionality of vaccine mandates.
“Courts across the country have consistently and almost without exception upheld vaccination requirements, for COVID and other infectious diseases, for public employees and within educational institutions,” Chemerinsky said in an email. “The arguments made in the complaint, such as liberty to not be vaccinated and prohibitions of human experimentation, have been consistently rejected by the courts.”