Former employees of Washington city file class-action suit against city over COVID-19 vaccine policies


Nearly 20 former Bellingham employees are suing the city and former Mayor Seth Fleetwood over their dismissal for refusing to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

In the lawsuit, filed Thursday with the U.S. Western District Court in Seattle, the employees are seeking unspecified punitive and compensatory damages in a jury trial.

All 18 employees, including former police officers, firefighters, mechanics and Public Works Department employees, are being represented by the Schexnaydre Law Firm of Mandeville, La., and locally by Charice Holtsclaw.

They were fired for not complying with Fleetwood's executive order, issued Sept. 21, 2021, requiring all city employees to have the COVID-19 vaccine by Dec. 6, 2021. By that time, nearly 80% of all city workers had been vaccinated, according to Bellingham spokeswoman Janice Keller.

Neither the plaintiffs' lawyers nor Bellingham officials were immediately available for comment late Tuesday.

Keller, the the city's communications director and deputy city administrator, told The Bellingham Herald in a May 1 email that Fleetwood was acting in good faith to ease the suffering and death caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

"The city's vaccine mandate was enacted as an emergency order to protect the health and safety of employees and the public, during a time when COVID-19 was causing illness, loss of life, and disruption to our community and our workforce. We took this action with great care, and with the support of many employees who were grateful for this additional protection in our workplace. When employees requested accommodations, our team evaluated each request individually and thoughtfully, understanding that their recommendations affected employees' lives and livelihoods. These were difficult decisions made during extraordinary times, with employee and public health and safety at the forefront of our minds," Keller said.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed Thursday include Tawsha Thompson, a former Bellingham police officer with 25 years experience. She ran for the state House as a Republican in 2022, losing to Rep. Alicia Rule, D-Blaine.

Some of the employees who were dismissed say that their requests for medical and religious exemptions under the vaccine mandate were rejected, according to the lawsuit.

As of Dec. 7, 2021, a total of 27 city employees lost their jobs for failing to comply with state and city vaccine requirements, Keller told The Herald in April, when former police officer Joshua D. Wilson sued the city over his COVID-19 firing. Wilson was not named as a plaintiff in Thursday's lawsuit.

Six employees resigned, 17 were dismissed for violating the city's terms of employment, and four were dismissed for violating Gov. Jay Inslee's vaccination order for state employees, teachers and health care workers, such as firefighters, Keller said.

In the lawsuit the plaintiffs say that the COVID-19 vaccines were medical treatments and that they "have a fundamental right and constitutionally protected liberty interest to refuse medical treatments."

The plaintiffs claimed that the vaccines resulted in a "massively anomalous (1,000% higher) number of adverse events and deaths," and that the was no justification for the mandate because the vaccines don't prevent the infection or transmission of COVID.

Fleetwood lifted the vaccine mandate on Feb. 13, 2023.

In addition to the lawsuits, the Bellingham Police Guild, which is the union that represents Bellingham police officers, filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the city with the Public Employment Relations Commission on March 14, 2022, alleging that the city should have first bargained the union over the vaccine mandate, Keller told The Herald.

A PERC hearing examiner ruled April 26 that the city did not commit an unfair labor practice and dismissed the Guild's complaint in the attached decision. The Guild has 20 days to appeal the decision to the full commission.


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