The state’s highest court on Thursday handed a victory to Mayor Michelle Wu in her legal battle with city unions over her vaccine mandate, ruling the city of Boston had proper authority in December 2021 to require that municipal workers be inoculated against COVID-19.
The unanimous ruling from the Supreme Judicial Court was a setback for three unions representing Boston police and fire personnel that had sued the city over the policy, arguing in part that city officials had to bargain with the labor groups before implementing it.
Citing a public health crisis, Wu had enacted a tougher version of the city’s vaccination policy in late 2021 amid the emergence of the wildly contagious Omicron variant of the virus.
Writing for the court, Justice Elspeth B. Cypher said Wu was not required to bargain over the change.
“Certain managerial decisions are exempted from collective bargaining obligations where such decisions, as a matter of public policy, must be reserved to the public employer’s discretion,” Cypher said, adding that “vaccination against COVID-19 not only protected the health of city residents, but also protected the defendants’ ability to continue to maintain a sufficiently healthy workforce during the Omicron surge.”
The ruling has little immediate practical impact since Wu’s vaccine mandate was never enforced because of litigation. No city employees were disciplined for failing to comply with the new policy, a spokesperson said earlier this month. But the decision may prove significant in the future should Wu decide to pursue another vaccine mandate in a time of heightened public health risk.
In a statement, Wu welcomed the decision.
“Today’s court decision affirms that our policies were grounded in sound medical guidance and the public interest at a time of emergency, and it makes absolutely clear that the city of Boston had and continues to have full authority to act in the interest of public health and safety, both last winter and in the future,” Wu said.
In January 2022, Suffolk Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Locke rejected a request from the unions, who were seeking an injunction to block enforcement of Wu’s mandate.
A ruling the following month from a single justice of the Massachusetts Appeals Court, Judge Sabita Singh, reversed that decision and granted the injunction. The SJC ruling Thursday lifted that injunction.
Earlier this month, the Wu administration agreed to drop the policy for the firefighters and another union involved in the lawsuit, although city officials said she has the right to impose the mandate again should the public health need arise.
Patrick Bryant, a lawyer for the Boston Police Superior Officers Federation, a union that was a party to the lawsuit, said the group is “disappointed by the SJC’s decision.”
“But the decision is unlikely to have any immediate impact. The City has never implemented the vaccine mandate as to a single of its 18,000 employees. The City finally agreed this month to drop the never-enforced policy,” Bryant said in a statement.
Leah Barrault, a lawyer for Local 718, the Boston firefighters union, said the ruling “in no way impacts the recent agreement between Local 718 and the city, and the Covid-19 mandate remains unenforceable to the members of Local 718.”
Sam Dillon, president of Local 718, echoed those comments.
“I respect the court’s decision to lift the injunction, however I do not see it having any impact on our union and members given the agreement we reached with the city in February,” Dillon said in a statement. “We are glad to have this matter behind us.”
City officials said earlier this month that they hope to reach a similar agreement with the Boston Police Detectives Benevolent Society, another plaintiff in the lawsuit.
Though the court ruled that the city was not required to bargain over the new policy, it said the question whether the administration’s deadline for employees to comply with the mandate was “reasonable and necessary” is an open matter that remains pending before the state’s Department of Labor Relations.
Because the city’s “initial deadline more than halved that of another employer in similar circumstances, we conclude that the [union] plaintiffs have demonstrated at least some likelihood of success on the merits of their impact bargaining claim,” Cypher wrote.
Tonya Alanez and Emma Platoff of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.
Travis Andersen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.