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Nurse Kaci Hickcox Sues Chris Christie For Civil Liberties Violations During Ebola Quarantine

bill-of-rights

It was just about a year ago now, when the United States was caught up in the middle of fears about the Ebola virus making its way to the United States, that name Kaci Hickox entered the news. As you’ll likely recall, Hickox was among the many American health care workers who voluntarily went to the nations of West Africa most deeply impacted by the 2014 Ebola Outbreak to provide medical assistance and help curtail the spread of the disease. Several of those workers, unfortunately, ended up being infected by the virus themselves thanks mostly to the fact that they were working in often primitive conditions in which safety protocols were often hit-and-miss. Most of those workers were infected overseas and brought to the United States for treatment at Emory University in Atlanta, the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, and other facilities around the country. However, there were some cases of health care workers whose diagnoses wasn’t discovered until they reached home, the most notable of those being Dr. Craig Spencer, a doctor living in New York City who had been in West Africa and started displaying symptoms of Ebola nearly a week after he returned home, at which time he was admitted for treatment and, ultimately, released after the virus was eradicated from his body. In addition to Spencer’s case, the U.S. also dealt with the case of Timothy Eric Duncan, a Liberian citizen who had been unwittingly infected before flying to the United States and didn’t check into an American hospital until it was far too late for him to be treated. Duncan passed away, but not before infecting two health care workers at the hospital he was admitted to, Nina Pham and Amber Ray Vinson, who ended up having to undergo intensive treatment of their own that ended up being successful in both cases.

The Spencer case, along with the Duncan case and the two nurses he infected, helped set off something of a nationwide panic that caused certain restrictions to be implemented at airports accepting flights from the area of the Ebola outbreak. That wasn’t enough for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, though, both of whom used their authority over the New York City area airports to impose far greater restrictions on people arriving from West Africa. This is where Kaci Hickox comes in. She was detained at Newark Airport after arriving home from West Africa and not allowed to continue on to her connecting flight. Instead, she was taken into custody and detained in a tent outside a hospital in Newark, New Jersey before being allowed to return home to Maine. Once in Maine, that state’s Republican Governor Paul LePage, who just happened to be running for re-election, attempted to impose severe restrictions on Hickox’s liberty notwithstanding the fact that she displayed absolutely no symptoms of having the Ebola virus and that asymptomatic patients are not contagious. Governor LePage’s efforts were derailed by a Maine State Court Judge, who limited the requirements placed on Hickox to keeping local health authorities informed of her condition and location during the incubation period for the disease.

Now, Hickcox has filed a lawsuit alleging that Christie and other government authorities violated her civil liberties:

When Kaci Hickox returned from fighting Ebola in Sierra Leone last year, she was emotionally exhausted, jet-lagged and in no mood to sit in quarantine. The nurse had just spent a month working for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in a clinic where, she said, staff kept track of the number of survivors, not the number of patients who died.

“It was too difficult of a thing to think about,” she told The Washington Post in a telephone interview. “We had to focus on the positive.”

Hickox was convinced that MSF’s detailed infection control policies — which included hand-washing with chlorinated water, wearing protective gear and adhering to a “no-touch” policy — had protected her. Yet, after she arrived at Newark Airport, she was quarantined against her will as a governor with presidential aspirations — current Republican contender Chris Christie — said those returning from Ebola-stricken nations couldn’t be trusted to monitor themselves for symptoms, and developed screening procedures with the possibility of mandatory isolation.

“I don’t believe when you’re dealing with something as serious as this that we can count on a voluntary system,” Christie said at the time. “The government’s job is to protect [the] safety and health of our citizens. And so we’ve taken this action, and I absolutely have no second thoughts about it.” And polls eventually showed New Jersey residents approved of the action.

Now, however, Hickox, 34, has fired another shot in a war many thought over. In a lawsuit filed Thursday in New Jersey with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, the rebel nurse is suing Christie and other state officials for $250,000, alleging false imprisonment, invasion of privacy and violation of due process, among other claims.

“The key issue here is that quarantine decisions that really go against all constitutional law should have due process, and politicians shouldn’t be allowed to make their own judgments,” she said. “… I think this is a really important thing to fight for in the United States.”

The suit details the alleged harsh treatment Hickox, who has a master’s degree in public heath and another in nursing, faced in the 80 hours she spend in state custody upon her return from Africa on Oct. 24, 2014. After her plane landed, she informed immigration she had come from Sierra Leone. Her temperature was taken and found to be normal. However, she was questioned “as if she were a criminal and was wearing a weapon belt.”

(…)

Early Friday, Hickox blamed her ordeal on “politicians being irresponsible.”

“I would love to have a conversation with Chris Christie and talk about what his motives were,” she said, pointing out that she was isolated near last year’s midterm elections. “…. The most important thing in a leader is that they listen to the experts. Laws are in place to make quarantine based on science, not fear and discrimination.”

The governor’s office declined comment to the Associated Press. Last year, when faced with the prospect Hickox’s involuntary quarantine might bring legal action, Christie seemed unintimidated.

“I’ve been sued lots of times before,” the governor said. “Get in line. I’m happy to take it on.”

On some level, this lawsuit isn’t terribly surprising given the fact that Hickcox had been particularly outspoken about what she felt was the unscientific basis for the policy that Christie was imposing on her. She was also stating as long ago as a year ago that she was considering filing a lawsuit against him and any other officials who were involved in what clearly was to any objective observer an unreasonable, unwarranted restriction on her civil liberties. As has been noted numerous times in connection with Hickcox’s case, while she did display an elevated temperature during her initial stop at Newark Airport, at least part of that can be attributed to the fact that she had been held alone in a small room for more than an hour without anyone answering her questions before her vital signs were taken. By the time she was transported to a hospital, all tests for any symptoms indicative of Ebola were negative and they continued to be negative during the entire time she was confined by New Jersey authorities. In the end, it turned out that Hickcox was not positive for Ebola at all and never once displayed any of the symptoms related to the disease after she returned home to Maine. In retrospect then, it is clear that the way she was treated was completely unjustified under the circumstances. More importantly, it was clear at the time that she was being treated unjustly by New Jersey authorities since there was no evidence that she was either infected with the virus, symptomatic with signs of the virus, or contagious to the point where she should have been considered a the kind of threat to public health properly subjected to quarantine. Indeed, the fact that New York and New Jersey ended up modifying their quarantine procedures in the wake of the Hickcox case was a tacit admission that the policies they had in place went to far and that Hickcox was treated inappropriately.

Jazz Shaw at Hot Air isn’t very sympathetic to Hickcox’s claims:

I find it hard to muster much sympathy for Ms. Hickox. Even the most libertarian among us would surely admit that your personal liberty and freedom to roam the public square can and should be limited if the possibility exists that that you’re carrying a communicable disease which decimated the populations of several areas in Africa. Even having tested negative for the disease was not, at least in the opinion of some medical authorities, an absolute assurance that the patient wouldn’t present symptoms later. Ms. Hickox is to be commended for her dedication to human life and willingness to risk her own to travel abroad and help people in distress. I just wish she had exhibited the same level of compassion for her fellow Americans upon her return when the cost she needed to pay was little more than sitting quietly and watching television for a couple of weeks on the government dime.

These points are well-taken, and it’s far too early in the process to judge the legal merits of Hickcox’s claim. On the surface, though, it strikes me that she has a very compelling argument in favor of her contention that she was unjustly detained and improperly treated based on the objectively available medical evidence about both her condition and the nature of the Ebola virus. As I noted in a long post about the legal issues surrounding quarantine, infectuous disease, and Constitutional rights, the government certainly does have the authority to quarantine people who are threats to the public health. That power, however, is not unlimited and, as we saw with the legal resolution of the Hickcox case once she returned to Maine, quarantine orders will be voided by a Court when they are not connected to any objective medical evidence and when the goals of the quarantine can be accomplished by less restrictive means. In Hickcox case, those less restrictive means included requiring her to submit to monitoring by local health authorities during the expected incubation period of the Ebola virus and to inform them immediately if she started displaying symptoms. While this may not be sufficient in some cases involving people outside the medical profession, Hickcox had more than enough personal knowledge regarding Ebola to be trusted to handle the matter on her own without having to be confined like a prisoner against her will. Given all of that, it was entirely proper for the Maine Judge to lift her quarantine restrictions and, it seems to me, entirely improper for New Jersey to have imposed the restrictions it did when she first arrived back in the United States. Now, we’ll see what a Court of law has to say about whether or not she’s entitled to damages for the ordeal she was unjustly subjected to.

Here’s the Complaint:

Hickcox v. Christie Et Al by Doug Mataconis

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. C. Clavin says:

    unscientific basis

    From a Republican? Nawwwww

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  2. It’s worth noting that the quarantine procedures that Christie imposed were also put in place by Andrew Cuomo and Jerry Brown.

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  3. Dave Schuler says:

    What’s the law on sovereign immunity and/or suits against individuals in their public capacity in a case like this?

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  4. C. Clavin says:

    @Doug Mataconis:
    Cuomo and Brown held people against their will?

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  5. @C. Clavin:

    Well, since nobody fitting Hickcox’s criteria arrived in a New York airport, we never got a chance to test that out. But, the policy under which Christie operated was one that he and Cuomo had jointly drafted and agreed would cover all arrivals from West African nations under the Ebola outbreak.

    Don’t ask me why Brown imposed the same quarantine policy in California. AFAIK, there are few if any direct flights from West Africa to any airport in California.

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  6. @Dave Schuler:

    The claims are based under the 14th and 4th Amendments, as well as claims under Sec 1983 for violations of civil liberties under the color of state authority. Sovereign immunity doesn’t apply.

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  7. humanoid.panda says:

    Whenever I think about this shameful display of cowardice and xenophobia, and how it was aided and abetteed by our media, and how if those people had their way the Ebola epidemic would still be ranging “there” and probably here too, I can’t but help wondering how long the republic has to live..

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  8. HarvardLaw92 says:

    The USDC for the district of NJ is dominated by conservative appointees. Whether or not she prevails may have much more to do with the judge who is assigned than the merits of her argument. I have my doubts …

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  9. MikeSJ says:

    It was frightening to see the breakdown of common sense and scientific protocols by these grotesque politicians. God help us if there’s a real medical crisis.

    The idea that buffoons like LePage and Christie being responsible for in a real emergency?

    Clearly the Feds need to have procedures in place to shut these clowns down instantly.

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  10. Grewgills says:

    @MikeSJ:
    That would require a change in law giving power currently in the hands of the state to the federal government. What chance do you think that has of happening in anything approaching the near term?

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  11. steve says:

    This occurred during election season. A major effort was made, Christie being part of this, to discredit the government handling of the Ebola outbreak, which is to say to discredit Obama and hurt the chances of Dems running for office. The right wing media ran a non-stop scare campaign. Since that was the purpose of the actions taken by people like Christie, it made perfect sense that he would ignore the science and recommendations of those working with the Ebola patients. To be charitable, I guess one could make the case that the right wing scare machine just frightened Christie and he had no political motivations….. OK, just kidding. It was probably both.

    Steve

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  12. MikeSJ says:

    @Grewgills:

    Probably none.

    But perhaps there’s some fine print in the Homeland Security charter that would allow the Feds to take over if the level of imbecility at a state reaches toxic limits.

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  13. DrDaveT says:

    @MikeSJ:

    But perhaps there’s some fine print in the Homeland Security charter that would allow the Feds to take over if the level of imbecility at a state reaches toxic limits.

    If you’re hoping for more sense from DHS than from, well, pretty much anyone else on the planet, you haven’t been paying attention.

    In the long run, DHS will be why Osama bin Laden won.

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  14. gVOR08 says:

    It’s frightening to look at comments on other sites. Without getting into the fever swamp, even at main stream sites comments run almost entirely that she should have shut up and taken it when Christie wanted to lock her up for no good reason and she should shut up now. Rampant fear and ignorance. The idea that she didn’t have Ebola and there was never any reason to think she had Ebola simply doesn’t matter. OMG Ebola!!! trumps any rational consideration.

    I hope some judge who isn’t an idiot finds for her and adds a large punitive judgement against Christie for being a pandering idiot.

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  15. Jeremy R says:

    @humanoid.panda:

    it was aided and abetteed by our media

    Yup. Many in the beltway media were personally, irrationally afraid and were completely incapable of keeping their own personal insecurities from influencing their coverage. The most panicky, embarrassing moment I can recall, was that White House press conference just after a couple of people come down with flu-like symptoms in DC. They were all obsessing over it in their questions and agitating for a travel ban, which they didn’t get. After it ended, a hot mic caught Major Garret, Wendell Goler and Kristen Welker griping to one another about the lack of a travel ban and scaring each other about the DC ebola rumors.

    Garrett: “We’re screwed.” … Welker: “If this D.C. test comes back positive, I’ll be doing phoners.”

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  16. WR says:

    And of course we have the predictable and hilarious response from “libertarian” Jazz Shaw, which basically boils down to the essential creed of every “libertarian” — “The only thing in life that matters is complete freedom from government interference. For me, that is. Also, if there’s a choice between the government depriving someone else of their liberty for no reason at all and a slight inconvenience for me, then lock them up and throw away the key. Because to a true libertarian like me, the only thing that matters is… me. Sincerely, Little Jazz Shaw, age 16.”

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  17. Andre Kenji says:

    There was no justification for detaining anyone that did not show symptoms of Ebola. That was widely explained at the time. Both Cuomo, LePaige, Brown and Christie were wrong. But Christie and LePaige actively sought to keep that poor nurse detained, we did not see Cuomo and Brown doing that.

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