Six U.S. Merchant Marine Academy cadets are suing the Kings Point school, arguing that a federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate "shocks the conscience" and violates their constitutional rights.
The federal lawsuit, filed last week in the Eastern District of New York, also names the United States Maritime Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation, which has oversight over the nation's maritime academies.
The USMMA trains men and women to be midshipmen on deep sea vessels and in the military. To apply to the academy, candidates must be nominated by a member of Congress.
Last month, USMMA announced that all first-year plebes and second to fourth-year midshipmen be fully vaccinated by Dec. 28 — the same deadline the Department of Defense issued for other service members — or be disenrolled from the academy. The mandate has no exceptions for weekly testing or for those who developed antibodies from previous COVID-19 exposure.
"We are proud to be representing these patriotic cadets in their quest to be able to make their own health care choices," said Staten Island attorneys Mark Fonte and Louis Gelormino, who represent the cadets, in a statement. "Vaccination was never a requirement of attending the Academy. 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."
A USMMA official said they were aware of the lawsuit but declined to comment on pending litigation.
The Defense Department’s vaccine mandate has survived previous legal challenges although records show that other cases are ongoing.
According to the lawsuit, unvaccinated first and second-year cadets do not have the ability to transfer credits to other colleges or universities to complete their education. Midshipmen could risk incurring heavy disenrollment penalties, the lawsuit states, including paying back the academy $260,000, the value of the four-year tuition.
Only two of six U.S. maritime academies — Texas A&M Maritime Academy and Great Lakes Maritime Academy in Michigan — have not implemented a vaccine mandate. But USMMA midshipmen are not allowed to transfer their course credits or sea days — they are required to work more than 300 days on commercial vessels in international waters — to either school, the suit said.
"Such a mandate that denies students an opportunity to serve their country shocks the conscience, violates constitutional rights, and not only should not be permitted, but must be restrained immediately to prevent irreparable harm," the suit states.
The lawsuit asks for unspecified damages and fees.