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Federal judge denies ORNL employees' request to block vaccine mandate, but criticizes how contractor treated them

"These employees deserve better, as does everyone associated with UT-Battelle," the judge said, saying he was sympathetic but would not issue an injunction.

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. — A federal judge on Friday denied a motion to block a vaccine mandate at the Oak Ridge National Lab after employees sued the contractor that manages it for enforcing an unpaid leave policy as an "accommodation" to approved religious or medical exemptions.

In his ruling, Judge Charles Atchley Jr. with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee said he was sympathetic to the employees' situation, but denied a request for a preliminary injunction to block ORNL managing contractor UT-Battelle from placing exempted employees who refused to get vaccinated for COVID-19 on unpaid leave until the lawsuit is resolved.

The judge said the court did not find the employees would be irreparably harmed by UT-Battelle's actions, with "irreparable" -- something that's impossible to fix -- being the key word in his ruling. 

This ruling came after Judge Atchley placed a temporary restraining order halting UT-Battelle from implementing the unpaid leave policy on October 15 until he could hold the preliminary injunction hearing Friday. The judge's latest ruling means UT-Battelle is now once again able to enforce its vaccine mandate at ORNL and place exempted employees on unpaid leave.

In his ruling Friday, Judge Atchley said the employees' argument that UT-Battelle's vaccine policy would cause them irreparable harm in various ways was "speculative." 

The employees argued they would be harmed by the temporary loss of income during the unpaid leave, including benefits, job-certifications and decreased career opportunities. However, Atchley said the law is well-settled in determining that temporary loss of income doesn't constitute irreparable harm, saying any loss of income is "quintessentially compensable" injuries.

Judge Atchley did acknowledge the hardship facing the employees was real, though, and had strong words for UT-Battelle over how it implemented the vaccine mandate at ORNL.

"The issue as to whether UT-Battelle was justified in issuing a blanket accommodation without individually assessing accommodations for each distinct employee remains unclear and raises significant questions," he said. "For a company that prides itself on the importance of its national security mission and the role it plays in protecting the interests of the United States, it is difficult to view its treatment of employees as thoughtful or prudent."

The judge said he "can't imagine" why UT-Battelle would be unable offer some other form of temporary accommodation instead of unpaid leave to those employees to minimize the amount of hardship they would face during their leave.

"In this regard, Defendant’s decisions reflect a shocking indifference to some of its employees. These employees deserve better, as does everyone associated with UT-Battelle," he said.

Judge Atchley said the law ultimately requires clear and immediate irreparable harm to be proven as a condition for imposing an injunction like this, despite the court being sympathetic to the employees' situation.

UT-Battelle is non-profit limited liability partnership between the University of Tennessee and the Ohio-based Battelle Memorial Institute established two decades ago specifically to manage and operate ORNL for the U.S. Department of Energy. The University of Tennessee system recently addressed vaccine mandates for federally-connected employees who work with federal contracts on its own campuses, saying accommodations for any exempt employees would not include unpaid leave. 

Judge Atchley was recently appointed to the bench on the nomination of former President Donald Trump in late 2020.

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