Judge rejects U.S. Merchant Marine Academy cadets’ request to block school’s vaccination mandate

Robert Pelaez
A federal judge rejected a request to block the United States Merchant Marine Academy's vaccination mandate last week. (Photo by Janelle Clausen)

A federal judge rejected the request of six U.S. Merchant Marine Academy cadets to block the Kings Point college’s coronavirus vaccination mandate last week.

U.S. District Court Judge Joan Azrack, in a 14-page ruling, said the mandate is of “critical national interest,” citing public health and safety in rejecting the request. The academy announced in October that all first-year plebes and second-to-fourth-year midshipmen must be fully vaccinated by Dec. 28 or they would be disenrolled.

A month before the academy announced its mandate, the U.S. Department of Defense announced that all service members, including students in the academy that have been appointed as midshipmen in the Navy Reserve, were required to be fully inoculated by Dec. 28. 

The complaint was filed on Nov. 19 by Mark J. Fonte and Louis M. Gelormino of F&G Legal Group, who represented cadets John Guettlein, Joshua Gardner, Alena Dunaway, Clarissa Reckline, William Tetrev and Brent Leblanc. 

“Vaccination was never a requirement of attending the Academy,” Fonte and Gelormino previously said in a joint statement to Newsday. “It is simply unlawful and unfair to change the conditions of enrollment in the middle of their tenure at the school. Many of these cadets would have chosen different career paths had this requirement been in place at the time of their commitment to the Academy.”

The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, Academy Superintendent Joachim Buono, the U.S. Maritime Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation were listed as defendants, according to the complaint.

The cadets, in the complaint, claimed the academy has not offered “weekly COVID-19 tests or a mask mandate in lieu of the vaccine, to accommodate unvaccinated students.” At least 30 midshipmen, according to the complaint, were unvaccinated at the time the complaint was filed.

Cadets said the mandate “denies students an opportunity to serve their country,” “shocks the conscience” and ”violates constitutional rights.”

According to the complaint, unvaccinated first- and second-year cadets are not able to transfer credits earned at the academy to other colleges and could be subject to disenrollment penalties, including repaying the academy for four-year tuition, estimated at $260,000.

Azrack, in the verdict, said “the public’s interest in military readiness and efficient administration of the federal government outweighs plaintiffs’ speculative claims of job-related, pecuniary loss and loss concerning potential tuition repayment.”

Efforts to reach Fonte, Gelormino, or a representative from the academy for further comment were unavailing.

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Robert Pelaez

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