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Fifth Circuit tosses mask mandate lawsuit filed by disability rights activists

Par for the course.

A federal appeals court on Monday tossed out a lower-court injunction, issued in November, that would have allowed public schools in Texas to ignore Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates.

U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel of Austin had blocked Abbott’s order as it pertained to schools, ruling that a ban on mandatory face masks improperly endangered students with disabilities and violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by denying them the opportunity to participate equally in school.

Texas appealed, and a month later the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocked enforcement of Yeakel’s injunction while it considered the state’s case.

On Monday, in a 2-1 ruling, the appeals court sided with state officials, tossing out Yeakel’s injunction and dismissing the lawsuit by the students. The court said the students did not prove that the ban on mask mandates put them at imminent and concrete risk of contracting COVID-19.

“In light of widely available vaccines and the schools’ other mitigation efforts, the odds of any particular plaintiff contracting COVID-19 and subsequently suffering complications are speculative,” Judge Andrew Oldham wrote in an opinion joined by Judge Don Willett. Both were appointed by former President Donald Trump.

In addition, Oldham wrote, the Americans with Disabilities Act only ensures that students have access to school, not that they have access to their desired accommodation of universal masking.

“Schools, in turn, have numerous alternatives for mitigating the risks of COVID-19 so plaintiffs have such access. The schools can adopt policies regarding vaccines, plexiglass, hand sanitizer, social distancing, and more,” Oldham wrote. “Plaintiffs have not even attempted to show that one or any combination of these accommodations is insufficient to mitigate the risks of COVID-19 to a level low enough that plaintiffs can attend school.”

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Eugene Davis complained that Oldham mischaracterized the students’ argument by saying they merely feared an increased risk of contracting COVID-19. Instead, the students argued that state Attorney General Ken Paxton’s dogged defense of Abbott’s ban on mask mandates, including lawsuits against school districts and threats of additional litigation, amounted to disability discrimination.

The students also proved that they had been, or will be, harmed by a ban on all mask mandates, even at schools that determine that limited mask orders were a reasonable accommodation for student health, he wrote.

“While all students bear some health risks by attending school in person during the ongoing pandemic, the district court found, and it is undisputed, that these plaintiffs face a much higher risk to their health because of their disabilities,” said Davis, appointed by former President Ronald Reagan.

See here for the previous update, and here for a copy of the opinion. There are still a lot of state lawsuits over the Abbott executive order that banned mask mandates in school, which largely turn on the question of what the Governor’s authority under the 1975 Texas Disaster Act is; the San Antonio ISD vaccine mandate lawsuit is in that same bucket. This was a federal lawsuit that claimed discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. I still think they had a pretty good argument, but it’s the Fifth Circuit, what are you gonna do? I suppose an appeal to SCOTUS is possible, but perhaps not advisable, as it’s probably not a good idea to give them a chance to mess with that law. Texas Public Radio and the ABA Journal have more.

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