NORTHFIELD – A group of 20 medical professionals has sued the city-owned hospital here, alleging they were fired without just cause after refusing to be vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus.

The suit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court, claims that Northfield Hospital and Clinics failed to accommodate "or even to attempt to accommodate" their religious beliefs and serious health conditions.

The plaintiffs include a doctor, 10 registered nurses and other medical staff including paramedics and occupational therapists. Nearly all of them were terminated on Oct. 31 after refusing to be vaccinated.

Those fired represent about 3% of the staff, the hospital said in a statement.

"We stand by our vaccination policy. COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective at preventing illness and spread of virus," said Betsy Spethmann, a hospital spokeswoman. "Full vaccination of our staff is the best way to protect our patients, staff, and community."

In their lawsuit, the fired workers say the hospital essentially rubber-stamped their denials without individual consideration.

"The hospital's blanket written exemption denials appear to have been cut and pasted from a template," the complaint says.

As vaccine mandates have spread in the wake of the virus, so have lawsuits. Nearly 4,000 lawsuits challenging vaccination mandates have been filed nationwide, according to Fisher & Phillips, an Atlanta-based law firm that tracks COVID lawsuits. About 40 have been filed in Minnesota.

Many vaccine lawsuits have been dismissed, especially those brought in the early months of the pandemic alleging that the vaccines were experimental. With several vaccines having received full FDA approval, those cases may be moot.

The right of employers and governments to require vaccinations for public health reasons is well established. A U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1905 upheld a Massachusetts law requiring smallpox vaccinations, and that decision set a precedent that courts have followed for more than a century, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a California-based health care nonprofit.

In June, the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel issued an opinion backing COVID-19 vaccine mandates by employers.

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also has said that employers can require vaccinations, subject to certain medical or religious exemptions. The agency recommends that employers engage in dialogue with employees seeking exemptions.

That's where the Northfield hospital failed, said Minneapolis attorney Andrew Parker, who's bringing the case against the hospital.

Several of the fired Northfield health care workers said they were given no hearing and no opportunity to explain their views.

"I was a very dedicated employee for almost 14 years, and I feel like I was just tossed away," said registered nurse Ellen Tichich. "Nobody ever sat down and talked to me."

Tichich had a brain tumor as a young woman that left her face partly paralyzed. Now 63, she said she wasn't willing to risk the vaccine's potential side effects, which she said can include Bell's palsy, a paralyzing condition of the facial muscles.

Kathy Hanek, a paramedic, said she has suffered from severe, chronic migraines for most of her life. Hanek, 54, said one of the known side effects of the vaccine is headaches. For her, a headache can turn into a severe migraine episode lasting for days or even weeks.

Robyn Hobmeier, a registered nurse, has fought breast cancer for the past year and recently completed six months of chemotherapy.

"Honestly, I'm lost," Hobmeier said of her termination. With two children to support, she has lost her job and her health insurance. It's especially distressing, she said, because she consistently volunteered for extra shifts during the pandemic.

"I put my life on the line, and I got kicked out the door," she said.

All three said they hesitated to speak out for fear of hurting future employment opportunities but felt they couldn't be silent.

"People are scared to speak up," Tichich said. "We're speaking for multitudes of people."

John Reinan • 612-673-7402