Former student suing Union College over vaccine mandate

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SCHENECTADY — A former Union College student is suing the school and several high-ranking officials there after she was expelled last year for refusing to get a COVID-19 booster shot after the college handed down a mandate requiring the inoculations last year. 

Diamond “Ellie” Puentes, a former pre-med student at the college, filed the 35-page lawsuit this week in state Supreme Court in Schenectady County, claiming Union College attempted to coerce her into complying with the mandate despite filing for a medical exemption, and then engaged in a defamation campaign against her after she spoke out against the college’s actions.

We believe that Union College behaved in a grossly reckless manner by expelling Ellie Puentes, a first-generation Mexican-American who was pursuing her dream to become a medical doctor,” Ronald Berutti, a New York City attorney representing Puentes, said in an email Thursday. 

The lawsuit also names Anglea Stefanatos, the college’s director of health services; Fran’Cee Brown-McClure, the college’s former vice president for students affairs and dean of students; Vincent Zeccola, a collaborating physician employed by the college; David Harris, the college’s president; Phillip Wadja, the college’s director of media and public relations; and 25 unnamed individuals.

The lawsuit claims that the college unfairly and illegally forced Puentes to choose between her health and education and ignored her request for a religious exemption and later a medical exemption that should have excused her from having the receive the vaccine and subsequent booster shot, which the lawsuit refers to as “the so-called COVID-19 vaccine shots.”

Puentes is seeking compensatory and punitive damages as well as attorney fees.

Mark Land, a Union College spokesperson, said in a released statement that the college is aware of the lawsuit and plans to vigorously defend its actions in court.

“Union College is aware of the lawsuit filed by a former student regarding the College’s COVID-19 vaccination policy. The college has no comment at this time on the specific allegations contained in this complaint,” he said. “It is important to note, however, that this legal action reflects the perspective of only one party in this situation. The college is prepared to vigorously defend its policies and decisions related to this matter at the appropriate time and in an appropriate manner.”

Puentes enrolled at Union as a pre-med student in 2020 as part of the college’s Academic Opportunity Scholarship, which provides out-of-state students from first-generation and low-income backgrounds with academic counseling and financial aid, turning down several other scholarships to accept the offer.

Prior to accepting the scholarship, Puentes, a Mexican-American who grew up in Chicago, was homeless, but managed to overcome the obstacles, becoming the first person in her family to attend college, according to the lawsuit.

“Ms. Puentes was able to find her way while studying hard to improve her circumstances so that she could better herself and honor her forebears for their sacrifices and struggles, and in the hopes that one day she could become a medical doctor who would be able to help others to live healthy, satisfying, and productive lives,” the lawsuit reads.

But the lawsuit claims Puentes’ trajectory was altered when the college began requiring all students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as a condition of enrollment beginning in July 2021.

Puentes, a practicing Christian, sought a religious exemption but was denied for failing to provide information pertaining to her religious denomination, according to the lawsuit, which contends that the college’s actions violated its own policies regarding vaccine exemptions that allow students to be vaccine exempt for religious and medical reasons on a limited basis.

“Her exemption request did not specify a religion or any affiliation with any denomination or church but referenced the ‘Holy Bible’ and her biblical beliefs,” the lawsuit reads.

Puentes, the lawsuit notes, was vaccinated against measles, mumps, rubella and meningococcal meningitis as required by the college because she was “not ‘anti-vaccine’ generally.”

She would ultimately receive the two-dose Pfizer vaccine, but became ill after the second dose, resulting in her missing a week of classes and requiring a trip to the emergency room at Ellis Hospital, the lawsuit says. At the hospital she was diagnosed with gastritis, prescribed medication, and released, according to the lawsuit.

Puentes claims her diagnosis was brought on by the vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that gastrointestinal illness can result from the Pfizer shot, but only on rare occasions. Studies have found the vaccines to be safe and effective, and the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have since been fully authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Puentes sought treatment at the Union College medical center where she was tested and treated for strep throat, according to the lawsuit.

In January 2022, the college began requiring students and staff to receive a COVID booster shot amid a spike in the virus.

Puentes, according to the lawsuit, applied for a medical exemption, fearing the booster could compromise her health, but was denied despite having submitted a note from her primary care physician and documentation from Pfizer that said her symptoms were consistent with side effects of the vaccine.

Instead, Stefanatos suggested Puentes was faking her illness in order to avoid having to get the booster, according to the lawsuit. Stefanatos would later diagnose Puentes with an eating disorder and strep throat.

As a result of Puentes refusing the booster, her classes were dropped in April 2022 and her meal plan was revoked, actions that the college knew would put her at risk because she was homeless and allegedly dealing with an eating disorder, according to the lawsuit.

“Defendants either knew that Ms. Puentes did not have an eating disorder, or else recklessly discriminated against her and punitively placed Ms. Puentes at unreasonable risk of harm of exacerbating the medical condition with which they incorrectly perceived Ms. Purentes to be suffering,” the lawsuit reads.

The lawsuit claims that Union College worked to defame Puentes in the the weeks following her expulsion, citing a CBS6 report where Wadja told the station that no students have been expelled for refusing the receive the booster shot. The statement cast Puentes in a negative light, damaged her reputation and was made “in reckless disregard of the truth,” according to the lawsuit.

Last May, Puentes appeared on the Fox News show “Tucker Carlson Tonight” to speak out against the college’s actions and criticized the administration for failing to address her concerns.

“For some reason the expertise of the Union administration trumps the makers of the vaccine,” she said. “There was nothing I was saying that was going to make them accept it. Their decision was final and I was expelled.”

She went on to say that she was in the process of determining her next steps and seeking a college that would “value me as a person, value my education and value my freedom to bodily autonomy.”

She is no longer pursing a pre-med education, according to the lawsuit.

“Ms. Puentes suffered the loss of potential lifetime income as a pre-med student, as she was caused by defendants’ actions to believe that the practice of medicine is not patient-centered, but rather is centered on the interests of the wealthy and powerful who are indifferent to the needs of real people such as herself, such that Ms. Puentes no longer is pursing a medical career,” the lawsuit reads.

This article was updated on March 3 to reflect to correct spelling of an attorney for Diamond Puentes.

Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: [email protected] or by calling 518-395-3120.

Categories: News, News, Schenectady, Schenectady County

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