A court should dismiss six cadets' lawsuit challenging the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy's COVID-19 vaccine mandate because no midshipmen at the Kings Point school have been harmed by the requirement, according to a federal prosecutor.
The plaintiffs are unable to show "a substantial likelihood that their claims are constitutionally ripe because they are riddled with contingencies and speculation," wrote Breon Peace, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District, in a 33-page response this week to the November lawsuit.
In October, the academy announced that all first-year plebes and second- to fourth-year midshipmen must be fully vaccinated by Dec. 28 — the same deadline the Department of Defense issued for other service members — or be disenrolled from the academy.
Peace argued in his Monday response that to date, no cadets have been "reprimanded or recommended for disenrollment" from the USMMA for being unvaccinated.
"Moreover, the Academy currently has no plans at this time to reprimand any student who chooses to remain unvaccinated," Peace wrote. "All that is required of a USMMA midshipman or plebe who is disinclined to be vaccinated is that s/he must notify the academy of his/her intent to request a medical or religious exemption no later than December 14, 2021 and continue following the Academy’s health and safety protocols."
The USMMA has yet to issue final procedures on how to process requests for medical or religious exemptions and will hold off on disenrolling students until those guidelines are released, Peace said.
"Plaintiffs have a choice: declare their intention to request an exemption or get vaccinated," Peace wrote. "It is only a student who refuses to make the choice who may face discipline up to and including disenrollment."
Staten Island attorneys Mark Fonte and Louis Gelormino, who represent the cadets, did not respond to a request for comment on the federal government's response.
Last week, the attorneys argued that vaccination was never a requirement for attending the academy.
"It is simply unlawful and unfair to change the conditions of enrollment in the middle of their tenure at the school," the attorneys said in a statement. "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 USMMA has declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing the pending litigation.
The suit asks for unspecified damages and fees. It names the United States Maritime Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation, which has oversight over the nation's maritime academies.
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 four-year tuition.
The USMMA trains men and women to be midshipmen on deep sea vessels and in the military.