Lawsuit settlement breaks down between unvaccinated students and Louisiana medical school

Students accuse VCOM of discrimination through campus mask mandate

By: - November 24, 2021 6:00 pm
Lawsuit settlement breaks down between unvaccinated students and Louisiana medical school

A Department of Health and Human Services employee holds a COVID-19 vaccine record card Nov. 13, 2020, in Washington D.C. (DoD photo by EJ Hersom)

Settlement negotiations appear to have broken down for three medical students who are suing a north Louisiana medical school over its COVID-19 vaccination requirement. 

The students asked a federal court in Monroe Tuesday to amend their complaint, lodging new allegations that the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine (VCOM) implemented new discriminatory policies that require only unvaccinated people to wear face masks indoors and submit to weekly COVID-19 testing. The motion comes one month after the judge approved a non-monetary settlement agreed to by both sides. 

As part of the proposed settlement, VCOM agreed to recognize coronavirus vaccine exemptions for students Rachel Lynn Magliulo, Matthew Shea Willis and Kristen Willis Hall, despite the school’s vaccine requirement for students and staff. The school also agreed to ensure the students would not be kept out of classes they needed to graduate. The students agreed to abide by “reasonable safety measures” for unvaccinated individuals as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control, according to the proposed settlement, as long as those measures don’t conflict with Louisiana state law. 

The new filing states that the school implemented new COVID-19 policies just days after the court approved the settlement agreement. The students argue that everyone should have to wear a mask on campus — not just unvaccinated people — because Ouachita Parish is an area of high transmission, according to the filing.

The CDC’s guidance for Institutions of Higher Education states: “For IHE’s where not everyone is fully vaccinated, CDC recommends universal masking indoors in public for all persons who are unvaccinated regardless of level of community transmission, and universal masking indoors in public for all persons (fully vaccinated and not fully vaccinated) in areas of substantial or high transmission.” 

One of the students, Matthew Willis, alleges the college wrongfully suspended him over its masking policy. According to a letter dated Nov. 12 and attached to the filing, VCOM informed Willis of multiple complaints from other students over his repeated failure to wear a mask while indoors and cited similar previous warnings. 

The college is a private institution that leases space on the campus of the University of Louisiana at Monroe. 

In their initial lawsuit, the students said VCOM first sought to force them to get vaccinated under a COVID-19 vaccine mandate issued in July, ahead of the new school year. The students said that after they threatened their lawsuit, VCOM backed off that initial requirement and said they could enroll but would have to disclose their unvaccinated status to classmates and couldn’t participate in clinical training required to graduate. 

In August, U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty granted the students a temporary restraining order against VCOM over those restrictions. The judge ruled that VCOM was violating state law — which allows broadly for vaccination dissent among public school students of all ages. The school could not keep unvaccinated students from participating in training that they needed to graduate under Louisiana law, he said.

Also under last month’s proposed settlement, VCOM would be prohibited from telling any medical residency program that the three students have refused to be vaccinated against COVID-19. In return, the students would not take a position on whether the school violated the law when it tried to force them to take the COVID-19 vaccine and would drop their pursuit of monetary damages against VCOM and several staff members named in the lawsuit.

Reached by email Wednesday, VCOM spokesperson Cindy Rawlins said the school’s lawyer was still reviewing the new filing and had not yet prepared a statement for the public.

Osteopathy is a field of medicine that emphasizes a whole-person approach to treatment and tends to focus more on physical therapies for the body than drugs or invasive treatments. Graduates from an osteopathic medical school receive a D.O. degree rather than the traditional M.D. carried by most physicians but can still prescribe medicines and perform surgeries. 

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Wes Muller
Wes Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the years since then, he has freelanced for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and worked on staff at the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. He also taught English as an adjunct instructor at Baton Rouge Community College. Much of his journalism has involved reporting on First Amendment issues and coverage of municipal and state government. He has received recognitions including McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association, among others. Muller is a New Orleans native, a Jesuit High School alumnus, a University of New Orleans alumnus and a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper. He lives in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, with his two sons and his wife, who is also a journalist.

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