Health care workers who sued state over vaccine mandate reveal names in court

Seven of the nine health care workers who sued Gov. Janet Mills and others over the state’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for health workers revealed their names in federal court on Monday.

The health care workers originally filed their lawsuit anonymously, citing fears for their safety.

The lawsuit prompted several Maine newspapers to intervene in an effort to force the plaintiffs to be identified. The Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal, Morning Sentinel and Sun Journal filed a motion in November 2021 challenging the group’s right to file the complaint anonymously. The newspapers argued that the plaintiffs “alleged fear of harm no longer outweighs the public’s interest in open legal proceedings,” according to court documents.

The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston ruled last week that they had to reveal their names in an amended complaint.

The amended complaint lists the health care workers as Alicia Lowe, Debra Chalmers, Jennifer Barbalias, Natalie Salavarria, Nicole Giroux, Garth Berenyi and Adam Jones.

Two health care workers who were originally involved with the lawsuit dropped out because the private practice where they work is no longer covered by the vaccine mandate, according to an attorney for Liberty Counsel, a conservative, religious law firm based in Florida that represents the health care workers and has participated in several lawsuits against Maine and other states over COVID-19 vaccine mandates and restrictions.

“The individual plaintiffs decided that the issues at hand are much too important to leave unsettled. They’ve decided to take the very personal risk and identify themselves in order to proceed with their claims against the State of Maine and private employers in order to bring these issues to light and to justice,” said Horatio Mihet, chief legal counsel for Liberty Counsel.

The hometowns of the plaintiffs are not included in court filings. Attempts to reach the plaintiffs were unsuccessful Tuesday morning. Mihet said the plaintiffs prefer Liberty Counsel to speak on their behalf.

The plaintiffs filed their complaint in federal court last August, before the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for health care workers at designated Maine care facilities went into effect on Oct. 20, 2021. They argued that it was their religious right to refuse the vaccine because of their belief that fetal stem cells from abortions are used to develop the vaccines.

Maine’s mandate does not allow for religious exemptions.

Named as defendants in the lawsuit were Gov. Janet Mills, Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, and Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as several health care agencies.

All seven plaintiffs requested exemptions from the mandate because getting the vaccine would violate heir religious beliefs but were denied because there are no exemptions, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit says Lowe was fired from her position at MaineHealth “for refusing to accept a vaccine that violates her sincerely held religious beliefs.” Chalmers and Berenyi lost their jobs at Genesis Healthcare as did Giroux from MaineGeneral Health.  Barbalias, Jones and Salavarria were fired from Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center for refusing to get the vaccine, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit does not describe the positions they held at the health care organizations.

U.S. District Court Judge Jon D. Levy ruled May 31 that the plaintiffs could not remain anonymous and ordered them to file an amended complaint with their names. Levy said in his ruling that “plaintiffs’ religious beliefs and their resulting medical decisions not to be vaccinated against COVID-19, whether considered separately or together, do not present privacy interests so substantial as to support pseudonymous proceedings. In the final analysis, however, there is a near-total absence of proof that their expressed fears are objectively reasonable.”

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