The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals this week upheld the dismissal of a federal lawsuit brought by a former UC Irvine professor who lost his job after refusing to receive a COVID-19 vaccination.
Dr. Aaron Kheriaty — a former professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the UC Irvine School of Medicine and former director of the medical ethics program at UCI Health — argued that he already has a “natural immunity” to the Coronavirus and alleged that the university’s policy violated his constitutional rights.
But a panel of appellate judges in a written opinion released on Wednesday found that there is no “fundamental right” to be free from a vaccine mandate at a workplace, and upheld a district court judge’s earlier decision to throw out the lawsuit.
The UC system in the midst of the pandemic adopted a policy requiring, with few exceptions, that all students, faculty and staff be vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus and show proof of the vaccination before they were allowed on campus, or in a university facility or office.
The UC policy also specified that employee’s who chose not to be vaccinated and who received no approved exemptions “potentially put others’ health at risk” and “may face disciplinary actions.”
Kheriaty was a vocal opponent of the university vaccine policy. He co-authored an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal arguing that such a mandate involving what he described as an “experimental” vaccine was “unprecedented and unethical.”
In a federal lawsuit filed against University of California leaders accusing them of violating the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection and due process clauses, Kheriaty argued that the vaccine policy was “illogical and cannot withstand strict scrutiny or even a rational basis.” He also argued that “naturally immune individuals” who have been exposed to COVID-19, like Kheriaty himself, “have at least as good or better immunity to the virus” compared to “individuals who are vaccinated.”
U.S. District Court Judge James V. Selna ruled against Kheriaty in December 2021, dismissing the lawsuit while describing the UC system’s vaccine mandate as “rationally related” to slowing the spread of COVID-19.
Later that month, Kheriaty announced that he had been fired for refusing the vaccine after nearly 15 years at the university. UCI officials at the time declined to discuss his termination.
In an interview after the district court ruling and his firing, Kheriaty indicated that he planned to appeal the decision to the Ninth Circuit and said he was not opposed to the vaccine, but instead believed individuals should have the right to decide whether to receive it.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion determined that Kheriaty in his lawsuit “fails to offer any appropriate historical example to establish a ‘fundamental right’ to be free from a vaccine mandate at a workplace’ and noted that the Supreme Court has previously upheld “a much more onerous vaccine requirement.”
The appellate judges wrote that Kheriaty, based on scientific studies he has cited, “may have a valid policy point in criticizing the school’s COVID-19 policy.” But the judges noted the school cited its own studies to support the policy.
According to his web page, Kheriaty is currently serving as a fellow and director of the Bioethics and American Democracy program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. It was not immediately clear if he will seek a review of the Ninth Circuit decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.