A tale of two lawsuits
How different judges saw school district vaccine mandates
a gavel and block with law books in the background
Two lawsuits against vaccine mandates instituted by California’s two largest school districts, Los Angeles Unified School District and San Diego USD, resulted in opposite outcomes at the county superior court level. While both districts still intend to implement the vaccine mandates, the different outcomes in the lower courts demonstrate that the law around vaccine mandates implemented by school districts in California may still be unsettled.
Children’s Health Defense v. Los Angeles Unified School District
On Sept. 9, 2021, the board of education for Los Angeles USD adopted a resolution that required all students 12 years of age and older to provide proof of vaccination against COVID-19 to attend in-person instruction. Unvaccinated students would attend school through independent study. The resolution exempted students with “qualified and approved exemptions and conditional admissions.”

The Children’s Health Defense and Protection of the Educational Rights of Kids (P.E.R.K.) filed a petition for writ of mandate against the vaccination requirement and moved for a preliminary injunction stopping the mandate. On Dec. 13, 2021, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff denied the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction. A preliminary injunction requires an analysis of two factors: (1) whether the party requesting the injunction is likely to prevail on the merits; and (2) the relative harm the parties will suffer in the interim due to the issuance or non-issuance of the injunction.

The court found the plaintiffs were not likely to prevail on the merits, relying on the permissive education code (Education Code section 35160). That section provides that school boards “may initiate and carry on any program, activity, or may otherwise act in any manner which is not in conflict with or inconsistent with, or preempted by, any law … ” The plaintiffs argued that the resolution conflicted with state laws and regulations relating to student vaccinations because under state law only the Legislature and California Department of Public Health have the right to impose vaccination requirements. However, the court found that the resolution did not deny admission to unvaccinated students, but was, instead, a “campus health and safety measure.” Thus, LAUSD’s action was not inconsistent with, in conflict with, or pre-empted by state vaccination laws.

The plaintiffs also argued that the resolution violated Education Code section 51747, which provides that independent study is voluntary only. In a footnote, the court addressed this argument by stating that its reading of the statute is that it relates to funding only. Thus, LAUSD may lose funding for requiring independent study for unvaccinated students but is not prohibited from requiring independent study for a lack of COVID-19 vaccination.

In balancing the harms to the party, the court found an injunction posed greater harm to LAUSD than the plaintiffs because of the negative impacts of COVID-19 to student health and the disruption caused by student quarantines.

This case is currently pending, as the plaintiffs are seeking a final injunction. LAUSD filed a demurrer, seeking to dismiss the suit, which will be heard on April 15, 2022

Let Them Choose v. San Diego Unified School District
San Diego USD did not fare as well in the superior court. SDUSD approved a “vaccination roadmap” on Sept. 28, 2021. The roadmap required all students eligible for a fully FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccine (16 and up) to be vaccinated to attend in-person instruction by December 2021. Unvaccinated students would attend through independent study. “Let Them Choose,” an initiative affiliated with “Let Them Breathe,” filed a petition for writ of mandate to block the roadmap. Superior Court Judge John S. Meyer issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting SDUSD from imposing the roadmap. The court acknowledged the permissive education code but found that SDUSD’s vaccine roadmap conflicted with state statute and regulations.

The court found that the Legislature and CDPH have “pre-empted the field” regarding school vaccinations. By doing so, they removed any authority from school districts to institute their own vaccine mandates. In making this finding, the court relied on the Legislature’s history of setting forth school vaccine requirements by statute or delegating the ability to add vaccination requirements to CDPH. The court also noted that SDUSD’s mandate was stricter than the vaccine mandates CDPH is allowed by statute to adopt, as those require a personal beliefs exemption, but SDUSD’s did not. As such, Judge Meyer ruled that the roadmap conflicted with state law.

The court also made an opposite ruling to the Los Angeles Superior Court as to involuntary independent study, holding that, under Ed Code section 51747, independent study is a voluntary alternative educational program. The court found that students may only be denied admission to in-person instruction if they do not meet existing vaccine requirements in Health and Safety Code section 120335. If students have the 10 vaccinations currently required by statute, “a school district cannot force or coerce them into non-classroom-based independent study.” Therefore, according to the court, the vaccine roadmap violated Ed Code 51747 as well.

SDUSD has appealed the decision. The Fourth District Court of Appeal has granted a stay of the preliminary injunction pending the hearing on the permanent injunction, meaning that Judge Meyer’s order is not currently in force. As a result of the order being stayed, SDUSD’s board adopted a resolution on March 8, 2022, to reimpose the mandate, effective September 2022.

These cases demonstrate that these issues are not cut and dried, and judges can reasonably disagree on how the law applies to a vaccine mandate imposed by a district.