Vaccine Mandate That Led To Firing Of Three Barrington (RI) Teachers Lacked Necessary Public Notice, Court Rules
The judge has scheduled a hearing on remedies for June 21, 2022. If the firing was the fruit of a poisonous tree — the imposition of a vaccine mandate in violation of the Open Meetings Act — the firing should be reversed as it was based on an unlawful mandate.
The three Barrington, Rhode Island, teachers who were fired for refusing the Covid vaccine on religious grounds scored an important early win in court yesterday when Associate Justice Jeffrey A. Lanphear of the Rhode Island Superior Court ruled that the Barrington School Committee failed to give the teachers—and the public—sufficient notice before enacting its Covid vaccine mandate.
As reported here last week, each of the three teachers—Brittany DiOrio, Stephanie Hines, and Kerri Thurber—had requested a religious exemption from taking the Barrington school district’s mandatory Covid vaccine. The district denied their requests, suspended them without pay, and ultimately fired them effective January 1st of this year. The school committee upheld that decision at a post-deprivation hearing held at the end of March, and the teachers plan an appeal.
But while the administrative appeals process seems likely to drag on for months, it is only one piece of the teachers’ legal battle. They have also asked the Rhode Island Superior Court to block the mandate, arguing that the school district violated Rhode Island’s Open Meetings Act, which requires notice of the school district’s public meetings, including “the nature of the business to be discussed.”
The school’s mandate took the teachers by surprise. They were due back in school by late August 2021, but it was not until September 21st that a letter came from Superintendent Michael Messore notifying them that they would have to vaccinate by November 1st or face termination. With the school year already underway, the teachers had no time to seek other options.
In fact, unbeknownst to the teachers, and well before September 21st, the district’s plans to implement a vaccine policy were already in progress. The school committee considered and approved the policy at meetings that took place during August and September last year, the court found.
But nowhere was any notice about the vaccine mandates to be found, either in the minutes or the agenda posted for any of the meetings. What’s more, the court said, “although there were numerous separate postings on the Secretary of State’s website, one for each of the Barrington School Committee meetings, the postings never mentioned mandatory vaccinations.” [emphasis added] Remarkably, “the detailed seven-page policy itself, was never posted.” “With minimal and vague notice,” the court stated, “it is reasonable to conclude that few knew of the actions being taken.”
Barrington’s unusually strict policy reaches beyond the three teachers, the court said further:
A new protocol setting policy during a pandemic is not only important to the teacher-plaintiffs, but it is reasonable to conclude that it would be important to the district’s 3366 students, their parents, administrators, other teachers, visitors to the schools and to the public at large.
The court’s ruling also reaches beyond the three teachers. Proper notice of public meetings (with limited exceptions), the court pointed out, as stated in the Open Meetings Act, is “essential to the maintenance of a democratic society.” And as the teachers’ lawyer, Greg Piccirilli said yesterday, Judge Lanphear’s decision “upholding the right of the public to open government” is not just a victory for his clients. “It is for all Barrington residents.”
The judge has scheduled a hearing on remedies for June 21, 2022.
The teachers’ attorney will ask that the firings be voided, as reported in The Barrington Times:
Piccirilli said it is possible that the judge could rule the vaccine mandate policy void and the teachers’ terminations void as well.
“It’s possible, we’re certainly arguing for that,” he said. “One thing flows from another.”
Piccirilli said there are previous cases where the courts have done just that, and ordered fired employees to be given their jobs back.
“I want to see these teachers get their jobs back, with back pay and compensation,” Piccirilli said during an interview with the Barrington Times on Thursday. “They were wrongly fired. They deserve their jobs back. They deserve their reputations back.”
It seems that if the firing was the fruit of a poisonous tree — the imposition of a vaccine mandate in violation of the Open Meetings Law — that the vaccine mandate itself would be declared unlawful and the firing reversed.DONATE
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