Challenge to IU vaccine mandate dismissed

A challenge to Indiana University’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate has been dismissed as moot after the final plaintiff who was not granted a vaccine exemption from IU withdrew from the school.

In a Tuesday per curiam opinion, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals remanded for the Indiana Northern District Court to dismiss the litigation first filed in June 2021 by eight IU students challenging the university’s vaccine mandate.

The Bloomington-based university first imposed the mandate in May, requiring all students, faculty and staff to get a COVID vaccine. Exemptions are available for religious, medical and “ethical” reasons, but unvaccinated students are required to undergo regular COVID testing.

The Indiana Northern District Court upheld the mandate in July, ruling in a 101-page opinion that the 14th Amendment allows the school “to pursue a reasonable and due process of vaccination in the legitimate interest of public health.”

The students, represented by The Bopp Law Firm in Terre Haute, sought a stay in the 7th Circuit, which was denied. They then sought review by the U.S. Supreme Court, but that motion was also denied. 

The students next returned to the 7th Circuit, arguing the mandate violated their rights to bodily autonomy and integrity and to medical choice — fundamental rights they say can only be infringed if a heightened standard of scrutiny is met. They argued the district court erred by upholding the mandate under rational review.

But of the eight students challenging the mandate, seven have received a religious exemption, while the eighth does not qualify for any exemption.

In the Tuesday opinion, the 7th Circuit noted that “standing depends on the eighth plaintiff, who does not assert that vaccination is religiously unacceptable.”

That plaintiff was identified in the opinion as Natalie Sperazza, who has withdrawn from the school. Asked about that issue at oral arguments, Sperazza submitted a declaration saying, “I have no plans to return as a student at Indiana University.”

“At the pre-briefing stage, plaintiffs told us that the suit is justiciable for two reasons: Sperazza’s status (now altered) and the fact that all plaintiffs contest the requirement that unvaccinated students wear masks and be tested regularly for COVID-19,” the three-page opinion says. “Their appellate brief ignores the mask-and-test requirement, however, so that aspect of the suit has been abandoned. Plaintiffs’ attempt to revive this subject in a post-argument memorandum comes too late.

“Plaintiffs nonetheless ask us to treat this litigation as justiciable because the subject is capable of repetition but evading review,” the opinion continues. “That contention is mistaken, for two reasons.”

The first reason is that the capable-of-retention doctrine only applies if the dispute can recur between the same parties. According to the 7th Circuit, “Given the religious exemption enjoyed by seven plaintiffs, and the withdrawal of the eighth, these plaintiffs will not be aggrieved by the University’s vaccination requirement in the future.”

Second, the vaccine mandate is not a “short-lived dispute” that can evade review.

“The problem in obtaining judicial review does not stem from an evanescent policy, whose application will be complete before a court can act,” the court held. “The obstacle to resolution of this suit is that the only plaintiff with standing withdrew from the University.

“The judgment of the district court is vacated, and the case is remanded with instructions to dismiss as moot.”

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