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Beverly Hills firefighters sue over vaccine mandate they call ‘experimental gene modification’

A man protests vaccination mandates  at Grand Park downtown
A man protests vaccination mandates at Grand Park in downtown Los Angeles last month.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Two Beverly Hills firefighters are suing over Los Angeles County’s mandate that healthcare workers be vaccinated against COVID-19.

It’s the latest salvo in the heated battle between some public sector employees and governments over public health requirements, which have seen workers stage protests and mount legal actions.

The lawsuit, filed Friday in Los Angeles Superior Court on behalf of Josh Sattley and Ettore Berardinelli Jr., names the city of Beverly Hills, Councilman John Mirisch, Los Angeles County and county health officer Muntu Davis.

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At issue is the rule announced in August that all county healthcare workers, which include first responders, be vaccinated unless they have medical reasons or religious beliefs that would exclude them. Neither Davis nor the city has the power to issue such an order, says the lawsuit, which also refers to COVID-19 vaccines as “experimental gene modification therapies.”

“Firefighters and other first responders have served courageously throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” Scott Street, an attorney for the plaintiffs, wrote in an email. “They were on the front lines when others sheltered in place. They earned the right to be heard but, in enforcing the County’s unlawful mandate, the City of Beverly Hills has largely ignored them and put politics before facts.”

Attorneys for L.A. County could not be reached for comment Saturday.

“The work of emergency first responders puts them on the front lines of patient care,” Keith Sterling, chief communications officer for the city of Beverly Hills, said in a statement. “While we have not yet seen the lawsuit, the City remains committed to protecting the health of our residents and visitors during this ongoing pandemic.”

The union that represents the firefighters, the Beverly Hills Firefighters Assn., has said that it encourages its members to get vaccinated but believes it should be a personal choice.

Weekly coronavirus case rates have climbed by 33% over the last two weeks, sending Los Angeles County back into the CDC’s worst coronavirus transmission tier.

The lawsuit says Beverly Hills subjected firefighters who requested religious exemptions “to cross-examination designed to undermine their credibility and to pressure them, under threat of prosecution, to give up their religious freedom and get the shot.” The actions amounted to religious discrimination, the suit alleges.

At least 22 firefighters were questioned between Sept. 28 and 30, and eight, including Sattley, were denied religious exemptions, the lawsuit states. Some of those firefighters then got the vaccine but Sattley refused and was put on unpaid leave, according to the complaint. The city did not give him an opportunity to challenge his suspension, violating his right to due process, the lawsuit says.

Berardinelli received a temporary, 30-day religious exemption, but the lawsuit alleges the city retaliated against him by assigning him to a job that receives fewer calls and preventing him from responding to certain calls.

The lawsuit also cites a September tweet by Mirisch in which he shared a letter he wrote to Beverly Hills Weekly taking issue with the fact that some 30% of the city’s firefighting force had requested religious exemptions to the mandate.

“If any of the firefighters who applied for exemptions on an unprecedented scale are gaming the system — and it seems highly likely that many, if not most of them are — it is nothing short of outrageous,” Mirisch wrote. “The firefighters applying for an exemption will be interviewed under penalty of perjury to ascertain whether their refusal to get vaccinated is medically necessary or rises to the level of a bona fide religious conviction.”

The tweet amounted to retaliation against the plaintiffs for exercising their 1st Amendment rights, the lawsuit alleges.

On Saturday, Mirisch defended his comments and said he personally believes the city shouldn’t grant religious or medical exemptions at all, although he said the majority of the City Council does not feel the same way.

“To say that people who are supposed to serve the public are acting in such a way that is self-entitled is an understatement,” he said, noting that city firefighters protested the mandate in October in an event promoted by the union during which they spoke about taking back charge of their department.

“There was a rally in front of City Hall which I would call an anti-vaxxer MAGA-palooza,” Mirisch said. “Here they are claiming they are not anti-science or anti-vaccine, but they were standing next to people holding signs saying ‘COVID is a scam.’ They are talking out of both sides of their mouths.”

Speakers at the rally included both Sattley and the union’s president, Victor Gutierrez, who called on members to support Sattley, according to the Beverly Hills Courier. Sattley has become an outspoken opponent of vaccine requirements, his Instagram page replete with posts decrying such rules and stating they are delaying response times and reducing service levels.

“I make the case it’s not their department — it never was their department,” Mirisch said. “It’s our department. It’s the department of the residents and the community, and the fact that they are acting in such a self-entitled way shows just how out of hand it has gotten.”

He said that as the conflict grinds on, he’s heard older residents express fear of calling 911 out of concern the firefighter paramedics who respond might be unvaccinated.

“Traditionally, the community has always revered our firefighters and had a great relationship with them,” he said. “I think this is irrevocably changing that, unfortunately.”

He added that he’s grateful for the roughly 80% of Beverly Hills firefighters who have been vaccinated.

Rosa Cardenas built a successful garment business with a first-grade education. The family’s progress is now threatened by the pandemic.

The plaintiffs are seeking damages, attorney’s fees and an injunction preventing the county from enforcing the mandate. The lawsuit also requests judicial declarations that the mandate exceeds the county’s powers under state law or is unconstitutional, that the mandate violates the right to privacy under the state Constitution, that the city’s practice of questioning those who request a religious exemption violates both the 1st Amendment and the mandate itself and must be ceased, and that the city can’t take an adverse employment action against city firefighters without providing them with an opportunity to challenge it.

An organization called Protection of the Educational Rights of Kids, described as a group that has advocated for medical freedom and individual rights during the pandemic, is also listed as a plaintiff and is financially supporting the case, attorneys said. The group previously joined lawsuits challenging vaccine mandates for L.A. County workers and for Los Angeles Unified School District students.

It has also organized rallies against vaccine mandates, including one last month in Long Beach at which Sattley was listed as a speaker.

That came on the heels of another rally that saw thousands of people, some of them municipal workers, gather outside Los Angeles City Hall to protest vaccine rules.

Other first responders have sought to halt vaccine mandates. Last week, a Superior Court judge denied a request by the Los Angeles Fire Department firefighters union for a preliminary injunction to delay enforcement of the city’s vaccine mandate. In September, a separate group of 500 Los Angeles firefighters filed a lawsuit against the city over its requirement that L.A. employees be vaccinated against COVID-19.


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