The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has settled two lawsuits with military service members who challenged the Biden administration’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.1 Pursuant to Settlement Agreement signed in the middle district of Florida, DoD will pay Liberty Counsel $1.8 million to cover attorney’s fees, costs and other litigation expenses that accumulated when the military service members’ religious exemptions to COVID vaccination were denied. The money will be retained by the law firm for their efforts in the two cases against DoD.2 3
The Agreement resolved the issue of legal fees only in these two matters, allowing neither party to admit their side was right or wrong in the eyes of the law. It states:
Without limiting the generality of the foregoing, this Agreement does not constitute, and shall not be construed as, an admission of liability or fault on part of the Defendants or the United States or their present or former officials, employees or agents, or as an admission of any contested facts alleged by the Plaintiff in connection with Plaintiff’s request for an award of attorney’s fees, costs, and other litigation expenses arising from the Civil Actions.4
Military Implements, Then Withdraws COVID Vaccine Mandate
DoD required that all active-duty U.S. military personnel be vaccinated for COVID shot by Dec. 15, 2021 and that all National Guard members get vaccinated by June 30, 2022. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said at the time:
After careful consultation with medical experts and military leadership, and with the support of the President, I have determined that mandatory vaccination against coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) is necessary to protect the Force and defend the American people. To defend this Nation, we need a healthy and ready force.5
Some 36,500 U.S. troops, both active and reserved, sought religious exemptions to the COVID vaccine mandate, but only a very small fraction of those religious exemptions were approved.6 Due to the COVID shot mandate, more than 8,400 troops were forced out of the military.7
On Jan. 23, 2023, Secretary Austin rescinded the COVID shot mandate for all U.S. military personnel under DoD jurisdiction.8 At the time the mandate was repealed, 96 percent of active and reserve military personnel were fully vaccinated.9
Two Lawsuits Filed Against COVID Vaccine Mandate for U.S. Military
The two lawsuits in which the legal fees were awarded are Navy Seal 1 v. Biden (Navy Seal 1) and Colonial Financial Management Officer v. Austin (CFM Officer), which involved service members who were denied religious exemptions to the COVID vaccine mandate. Both lawsuits were dismissed in May 2023, but the fight over legal fees had remained until recently.10 11 12
In Navy Seal 1, a Temporary Restraining Order preventing the military from taking disciplinary action was extended and a Preliminary Injunction granted by District Court Judge Steven Merryday to two service members, who refused the shot on religious grounds after they gave testimony in court about their religious beliefs at a February 2022 hearing.13 Both men had been denied a religious exemption and faced discharge from the military.14
The Complaint was amended separating the cases into three distinct lawsuits, each involving different branches of the military and changing the name to Navy Seal 1 v. Austin. By the end of March 2022, the matter reaches the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals which grants a partial limited stay pending appeal applicable, “insofar as it precludes the Navy from considering respondents’ vaccination status in making deployment, assignment, and other operational decisions.”
On May 9, 2022, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals remanded the cases back to Judge Merryday where they were dismissed when the COVID vaccine mandate was rescinded by DoD. Matt Staver, Plaintiff’s attorney and Liberty Counsel Matt Staver founder and chairman, announced:
Our classwide injunction stopped the Department of Defense from violating the rights of the Marines and now the mandate has been rescinded. Now Liberty Counsel will soon return to court to press our claim for attorney’s fees and costs.15
DoD has 21 days to pay Liberty Counsel per the Settlement Agreement.16
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1 Myers M. DOD settles COVID vaccine mandate lawsuits for $1.8 million. Military Times Oct. 9, 2023.
2 Fee Settlement and Release. Navy Seal 1 v. Biden 8-21-cv-2429 (M.D. Fla.); Colonel Financial Management Officer v. Austin, No. 8:22-cv-1275.
3 DOD pays Liberty Counsel $1.8 million for Covid litigation. The Citizen Oct. 4, 2023.
5 Kaufman E, Liebermann O. US military branches set deadline for members to be vaccinated against Covid-19. CNN Sept. 14, 2021.
6 Beynon S. Thousands of Troops with COVID Vaccine Exemption Requests No Longer Facing Separation with Mandate Gone. Military News Jan. 4, 2023.
7 Gooding M. Pentagon’s former COVID mandate is costing taxpayers following lawsuits. 13 News Now Oct. 10, 2023.
8 Press Release. DOD Rescinds COVID-19 Vaccination Mandate. U.S. Department of Defense Jan. 10, 2023.
9 Myers M. The fallout of the military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Military Times Mar. 27, 2023.
10 Myers M. Could the Supreme Court strike down the military’s vaccination mandate? Military Times Feb. 18, 2022.
11 Seal 1. Biden. Liberty Counsel. Feb. 11, 2022.
12 Dumais J. DOD Will Pay 1.8 Million to Law Fir Representing Service Members in COVID Vaccine Mandate Suits. The Defender Oct. 5, 2023.
13 Seal 1. Biden. Liberty Counsel Feb. 11, 2022.
14 Sullivan D. Judge extends temporary ban on punishment for officers refusing COVID vaccine. Military Times Feb. 10, 2022.
15 Case. Liberty Counsel May 17, 2023.
16 Gooding M. Pentagon’s former COVID mandate is costing taxpayers following lawsuits. 13 News Now Oct. 10, 2023.