Stay of OSHA Covid-19 Private Employer Vaccine Mandate Dissolved:  Sixth Circuit Panel Finds Employers Failed to Meet Standard for Granting Stay


In re:  MCP No. 165, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Interim Final Rule; Covid-19 Vaccination and Testing; Emergency Temporary Standard 86 Fed. Reg. 61402. No. 21-7000 (6th Cir.). Order dissolving Fifth Circuit stay entered December 17, 2021.


The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is now administering consolidated litigation from all federal circuits relating to the U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS)  issued November 5, 2021.

The Emergency Temporary Standard  mandates that employers with more than one hundred employees require that employees be vaccinated against Covid-19 or be tested frequently and masked.  

On December 17, a three-member panel of judges of the Sixth Circuit dissolved the stay of the ETS entered by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals prior to multi-district litigation consolidation.  

Two of the three judges have published an opinion providing  a point-by-point refutation of the Fifth Circuit’s views  One judge has written a separate concurrence.  A third has dissented.  

No stealing bases. It appears that the courts may be experiencing ’emergency’ fatigue, and even if this is not so, skipping procedural steps has been discouraged. Earlier in the week the Sixth Circuit denied motions for initial review en banc.  This will serve to inhibit the litigants in seeking immediate review in the U.S. Supreme Court prior to seeking rehearing en banc and could aid the Supreme Court, if such immediate review is nonetheless sought, in remanding the case to the federal appellate court for further proceedings.  

          In procedurally unrelated but topically similar litigation, the United States Supreme Court has denied a petition to stay New York’s vaccine mandate pending review of a petition for certiorari which argues that New York’s failure to provide for religious exemption from vaccination violates the First Amendment.

The Opinion in the Multidistrict Litigation.  The Sixth Circuit perceives the Covid-19 virus to be an ongoing causative agent, one which has killed people and shut down the economy, which prompted employers to seek guidance from the Department of Labor Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), which in turn, on November 5, 2021, issued an Emergency Temporary Standard requiring certain employers to require employee vaccination or face covering and frequent testing.

          The Fifth Circuit enjoined implementation of the ETS the day after it was issued.  The court affirmed its decision a week later.

          The Sixth Circuit now observes that OSHA may issue emergency orders bypassing public notice and comment proceedings where grave danger requires employee protection.

          The OSHA emergency measure does not require employee vaccination, the court has found, as employees may be masked and tested or work from home, but employers must maintain vaccination records or face penalties. 

The Sixth Circuit panel has examined the four established evaluative factors to be considered in staying any measure before litigation.

Petitioners’ Likelihood of Success on the Merits.

          Authority for OSHA’s Action Exists.  Contrary to the Fifth Circuit’s determination, the Sixth Circuit perceives that OSHA may regulate infectious diseases within its statutory authority. 

          The “major questions” doctrine cited by the Fifth Circuit is an interpretive tool permitting exception from deference to agency authority, but it is vague and it is in any case inapplicable where agency authority has not been expanded, the court has explained.  

          Same emergency, different authority. The OSHA Covid-19 employer mandate can be distinguished from the eviction moratorium declared unconstitutional earlier this year by the U.S. Supreme Court.  The Centers for Disease Control lacks authority to regulate landlord-tenant relations, as the Supreme Court has found, but here, the Sixth Circuit panel has concluded, OSHA has established authority to regulate workplace safety.

          Moreover, OSHA gathered evidence substantiating its conclusion that an emergency exists.  The Sixth Circuit declined to find that any necessity permitting emergency intervention by OSHA be universal or absolute, but rather found that the persistence of workplace issues prompted issuance of the emergency temporary standard as the last arrow in the Secretary of Labor’s quiver. 

          The federal appellate judges dismissed attacks on the OSHA measure as over or under inclusive, finding that the efficacy of a measure, particularly an emergency measure, need not be perfectly calibrated or accompanied by a cost-benefit analysis.

          The panel dismissed the notion embraced by the Fifth Circuit that the OSHA mandate is in violation of the Commerce Clause, and impact on interstate commerce, such as viral contagion, is sufficient to establish a basis for federal law and federal preemption. 

          The Sixth Circuit judges found the non-delegation doctrine to be somewhat musty and in any case inapposite where it is well established that Congress may delegate to executive branch powers to act in the public interest or to protect public health. 

Whether Irreparable Harm Will Befall Petitioners in the Absence of a Stay. 

The Sixth Circuit explored the irreparable harm issue notwithstanding its view that its analysis of the petitioners’ assertions and arguments fail to demonstrate the likelihood of success on the merits, which could have ended the inquiry because the public interest analysis merges with the likelihood of success on the merits analysis where the government is a party.

The judges dismissed as “speculative” employers’ views of compliance cost, including loss of workers, and noted that if cited for non-compliance, an employer can always assert the impossibility of compliance as a defense.  The potential harm to the public of failure to implement Covid-19 contagion mitigation measures such as the OSHA employer mandate, in light of the harms already incurred by the nation, are staggering, and the risks to the public are only underscored where petitioners have not shown that they are likely to prevail on  the merits.  

Note well:  this panel’s opinion may not be within the judiciary’s bailiwick.

In a separate concurrence, Circuit Judge Gibbons has written to emphasize his view that the judicial branch ought not be as active in policy questions as this litigation has demanded.  The judge notes that questions of what the other branches might have done differently or “sweeping pronouncements” about constitutional law, themselves “untethered” to the present case, invite the judicial branch to exceed its limits.  Separation of powers principles preclude judicial second-guessing of coordinate branches.  Where a court concludes that an agency has acted within its authority and within constitutional bounds, the judge opined, the court ought not press further into realms committed to other branches’ expertise.  

Au Contraire:  Dissenting Judge Opines that Panel Analysis is Wrong

The dissenting member of the panel thinks the question of constitutional and statutory authority is squarely within the power of the judiciary.

The dissent wholly disagrees with the view that the OSHA emergency measure permits employers to decide how to manage workplace Covid-19 risks.  Employers must adopt written policies, demand that employees be vaccinated unless exempt, and pay employees who need time off to get vaccinated.  The mask and testing alternative was, by OSHA’s own admission, designed to be unpalatable as by its operation it imposes costs of testing on employers.

The dissent observes that it is not necessary that petitioners demonstrate a likelihood of success on each and every one of its theories in order to substantiate the need for a stay:  the potential to prevail on one theory would suffice.

Petitioners can demonstrate a likelihood of success, the dissent has concluded, because OSHA has exceeded its authority, which limits the promulgation of emergency measures to circumstances in which employees face grave danger and the emergency intervention is necessary to protect employees.

Where OSHA never made a finding that its rule was necessary, the rule cannot be upheld:  the insufficiency of extant measures, which is the justification offered by the Secretary of Labor, will.not meet the “necessary” standard. 

Moreover, effectiveness is a separate question that cannot be bootstrapped into a determination of necessity.

The dissenting justice rejects the notion that emergency measures, by their very nature, need not be as carefully crafted or supported as normative acts, and this is particularly so where OSHA has had nearly two years to consider protections and to evaluate alternatives.  Where no showing of necessity can be made, the emergency measure cannot be sustained.

Of similar concern is that the Secretary failed to locate a “grave danger” that would support the private employer vaccine mandate.  Although viral infection can be dangerous, there is no evidence showing that contracting the disease is a grave threat, as available data show varying levels of risk among different demographics.

There is no evidence linking contraction of Covid-19 to the workplace.  Those who are already vaccinated are not, by and large, imperiled.  Where a mortality rate of one in two hundred and two cases of infection is said to exist among the unvaccinated, OSHA has not met the “grave danger” requirement, particularly where no link to workplace harm has been shown.  

The dissent questions the panel’s minimization of the substance of the “major questions” concerns petitioners raise where OSHA has never issued an emergency measure of the scope of the Covid-19 employer mandate and, the dissent observes, the question is not simply one of the kind of measure OSHA may implement, but also its scope or degree (emphasis in text). 

Given the Supreme Court’s discussion of the “major questions” doctrine in declaring the CDC eviction moratorium to be invalid, it is not accurate to say, as this panel has, that the “major questions” doctrine is an arcane exception to deference to agency expertise.  

Finally, OSHA’s circumspection in other contexts supports similar caution here, and does not support promulgation of an expensive and unparalleled emergency measure.

Employers will be hamstrung by the costs of compliance and by the potential loss of employees that may ensue.  Similarly problematic is the loss that will result to individuals who submit to vaccination only to learn later, as they may,  that the command to do so was not supported in law. 

The dissent points out that OSHA cannot complain that petitioners have not substantiated their claims where by invoking emergency authority OSHA foreclosed the opportunity for notice and comment that would permit submission of evidence for agency consideration.  


Opinion of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit Dissolving Stay of OSHA Mandate

In re. MCP No. 165. Sixth Circuit Order December 17, 2021

Correspondence and Opinion of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit Denying Initial Hearing En Banc

In re. MCP No. 165, Sixth Circuit Order December 15, 2021

Order of the U.S. Supreme Court Denying Injunctive Relief with Dissenting Opinion

21A145 Dr. A v. Hochul, No. 21A 145 Order and Dissenting Opinion December 13, 2021

Litigation Contagion:  With Thirteen Vaccine Mandate Petitions Consolidated in the Sixth Circuit, OSHA Seeks Emergency Dissolution of Stay Entered by Fifth Circuit


Memoranda concerning the stay of the vaccine mandate, entered by the Fifth Circuit and consolidated in the Sixth Circuit, are due on November 30, with responses due December 7th and replies due December 10.  At this posting, no action has been taken on the government’s motion to expedite briefing.


All together now. With multidistrict litigation underway in the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) seeks emergency dissolution of the stay of the Emergency Temporary Standard (the “Vaccine Mandate”) entered by the United States Court #v Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.  Some petitioners object to the administration proceeding on an emergency basis, while others ask that the Sixth Circuit transfer all the proceedings to the Fifth Circuit.

Nationwide Vaccination or Testing Required of Certain Employers Stayed. The OSHA Vaccine Mandate, which requires employers of 100 or more employees to require employee vaccination or testing concerning Covid-19 or face significant fines, which would by its terms take effect on December 6, 2021, was stayed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit on November 12, 2021.  

Ruling on retention, modification, or dissolution of the stay front and center. The Sixth Circuit, to which all petitions in twelve federal circuits were transferred by order of the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, has invited briefing on whether the stay ought to be vacated, amended, or extended.  The federal respondents seek dissolution of the stay on an emergency basis.  Several petitioners seek initial hearing en banc before the federal appellate court.

Constitutional concerns about a measure said to be for the common good.  The Fifth Circuit entered a stay of the Vaccine Mandate based on its perception that the Vaccine Mandate is a sweeping national measure that presents grave constitutional concerns.  In ordering the halt of the mandate, the appellate court, among other determinations, found no statutory authority with which OSHA could create such a measure.  In the absence of explicit authority from Congress, the federal agency exceeded its statutory as well as Commerce Clause powers and encroached on public health rights reserved to the states.  Where OSHA has no authority, in the Fifth Circuit’s view, to regulate a hazard that is not confined to the workplace, OSHA cannot dictate the behavior of individuals using employers as a conduit.

Emergency action is necessary to address potentially lethal health consequences. OSHA argues that the Covid-19 virus has killed hundreds of thousands of people and that OSHA”s gathering of evidence supporting requiring vaccination is empirically sound, and that OSHA”s findings ought not be disturbed by the courts.  The federal government asserts that authority for monitoring contagious diseases was established decades ago with respect to blood-borne pathogens.

Employers hamstrung by compliance, particularly where resistant employees threaten to quit if vaccination required.  Opposing employers resist the government’s position that employers’ estimates of the costs of vaccine compliance are speculative.  Employers resent the government’s determination to proceed on an emergency basis before the Sixth Circuit has developed a comprehensive case management order or ruled on several pending motions for initial review en banc.  

Mandate’s impact not confined to employers and employees Employers stress that the impact of the vaccine mandate, if permitted to take effect, will force employees to choose between their work or their personal autonomy before the year end holidays.  As many essential workers are involved, the impact of the mandate will be felt by the public at large, as goods and services will not be manufactured and provided as planned.

Get litigation back to where it once belonged. While acknowledging that the Sixth Circuit has shown deference to the Fifth Circuit, some petitioners seek transfer of the consolidated multidistrict litigation to the Fifth Circuit, which has, it is argued,  already acquainted itself with the issues in the time sensitive vaccine mandate cases  

JustLawful Note:  Few would dispute that the reach of the vaccination mandate is historic, and it is hardly speculative to believe that the matter will reach the United States Supreme Court, nor is it unreasonable to think that the Sixth Circuit will promptly address the motions now before it. 


Case Materials

BST Holdings, et al. v. Occupational Health and Safety Administration, et al., No. 21-60845 (5th Cir.).  Opinion and Order November 12, 2021.

BST Holdings et al v. OSHA, No. 21-60845 (5th Cir.) Order November 12, 2021

In re. MCP No. 165:  OSHA Rule on COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing, 86 Fed. Reg. 61402, No. 21-7000 (6th Cir.).  Docket as of November 28, 2021.

In re. MCP No. 165,, No. 21-7000 (6th Cir.) Docket as of November 28, 2021

In re:  Occupational Safety and Health Administration Interim Final Rule:  COVID-19 Vaccine and Testing:  Emergency Temporary Standard, 86 Fed. Reg. 61402, Issued November 4, 2021.  United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, MCP No. 165.  Consolidation Order, November 18, 2021.

In re: Occupational Safety and Health Administration Interim Final Rule: COVID-19 Vaccine and Testing: Emergency Temporary Standard, 86 Fed. Reg. 61402, Issued November 4, 2021. United States Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, MCP No. 165. Consolidation Order, November 18, 2021.

Phillips Manufacturing and Tower Company, et al. v. U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, No. 21-4028 (6th Cir.) Petition for Initial Hearing en Banc, November 17, 2021.

Phillips Manufacturing and Tower v. OSHA, No. 21-4028 (6th Cir.) Petition for Initial Hearing en Banc, November 17, 2021

In re. MCP No. 165:  OSHA Rule on COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing, 86 Fed. Reg. 61402, No. 21-7000 (6th Cir.). Initial Case Management Order, November 21, 2021.

Initial Case Management Order In re MCP No. 165 OSHA Rule on COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing

In re. OSHA Rule on Covid-19 Vaccination and Testing, 86 Fed. Reg. 61401, No. 21-4018, No. 21-7000 (6th Cir.) Respondents’ Emergency Motion to Dissolve Stay, November 23, 2021.

In re OSHA Rule on Covid-19 Vaccination and Testing, 86 Fed. Reg. 61401, No. 21-4018, No. 21-7000 (6th Cir.). Respondents’ Emergency Motion to Dissolve Stay, November 23, 2021

In re. OSHA Rule on Covid-19 Vaccination and Testing, 86 Fed. Reg. 61401, No. 21-4018, No. 21-7000 (6th Cir.).  Respondents’ Motion to Amend Schedule for Stay Briefing and to Set Schedule for Merits Briefing, November 24, 2021

In re OSHA Rule on Covid-19, Respondents Motion to Amend Schedule for Stay Briefing, No. 21-7000 (6th Cir.) November 24, 2021

In re. MCP No. 165:  OSHA Rule on COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing, 86 Fed. Reg. 61402, No. 21-7000 (6th Cir.). Job Creators’ Network, et al. v. OSHA, et al.  Opposition to Respondents’ Emergency Motion to Dissolve Stay, November 23, 2021.

In re OSHA Rule on Covid-19 Vaccination and Testing, No. 21-7000 (6th Cir.) Job Creators’ Network et al. Opposition to Emergency Motion to Dissolve Stay, November 23, 2021

In re. MCP No. 165:  OSHA Rule on COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing, 86 Fed. Reg. 61402, No. 21-7000 (6th Cir.). Motion to Transfer by BST Holdings, et al., November 23, 2021

In re. MCP No. 165:  OSHA Rule on COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing, 86 Fed. Reg. 61402, No. 21-7000 (6th Cir.). Motion to Transfer by BST Holdings, et al., November 23, 2021

In re. MCP No. 165:  OSHA Rule on COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing, 86 Fed. Reg. 61402, No. 21-7000 (6th Cir.). Motion to Hold in Abeyance Government’s Emergency Motion to Dissolve Stay, November 23, 2021

In re MCP 165 OSHA Rule on Vaccination and Testing, No. 21-7000 (6th Cir.) Motion to Hold in Abeyance Government’s Emergency Motion to Dissolve Stay

In re. MCP No. 165:  OSHA Rule on COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing, 86 Fed. Reg. 61402, No. 21-7000 (6th Cir.).  Order, November 23, 2021.

In re MCP 165, No. 21-7000 (6th Cir.) Order November 23, 2021