Charles Toutant | New Jersey Law Journal
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey has sued Gov. Chris Christie in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey on behalf of a nurse who was involuntarily quarantined for three days after returning from a trip to care for Ebola patients in Sierra Leone.
The state's detention of Kaci Hickox even after she showed no symptoms of the Ebola virus violated her rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth amendments, according to the suit, which was filed Oct. 22, nearly a year after her return. She claims Christie and then-Commissioner of Health Mary O'Dowd ordered her held against her will in a tent in a parking garage at University Hospital in Newark.
The ACLU brought the case along with two New York lawyers, Steven Hyman of McLaughlin & Stern, and Norman Siegel of Siegel, Teitelbaum & Evans.
"I never had Ebola. I never had symptoms of Ebola. I tested negative for Ebola the first night I stayed in New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's private prison," Hickox said in a statement. "My liberty, my interests and consequently my civil rights were ignored because some ambitious governor saw an opportunity to use an age-old political tactic: fear."
Hickox, who has a master's degree in public health and a diploma in tropical nursing, spent a month in Sierra Leone working for Medecins Sans Frontieres in the fall of 2014. While in Sierra Leone, she adhered strictly to infection control policies, including wearing protective gear when in physical contact with Ebola patients, and adhering to a no-contact policy which prohibited handshakes, hugs or sharing items with another person, the suit says.
After leaving Sierra Leone, she spent two days in Brussels, where she was not detained, before arriving at Newark Liberty International Airport on Oct. 24. In Newark, she was questioned by persons who donned protective masks, gloves and coveralls before speaking with her, according to the suit. One of those questioners, who had a weapon belt protruding from his coveralls, spoke to her "aggressively, as if she were a criminal," the suit says.
Hickox told those she met that quarantine was unnecessary because she had no symptoms of Ebola and posed no threat to anyone. But when she was placed in a tent at University Hospital, a guard stood outside to ensure she did not leave, the suit claims. She was kept in detention even after two tests indicated she was not carrying the Ebola virus, according to the suit.
State statutes give authorities the right to employ quarantine measures when medically and epidemiologically necessary, according to the suit. But the laws only allow quarantine of persons who have been infected or exposed to a communicable disease, the suit says.
Her suit claims she was unreasonably confined without legal basis, in violation of her rights to be free of unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment and to be free of a deprivation of liberty under the Fourteenth Amendment. She also brings a due process claim and claims for false imprisonment and invasion of privacy.
"While this lawsuit has been filed to vindicate Kaci's constitutional rights, an important corollary of this action is to change the existing New Jersey quarantine policy so that what happened to Kaci will not happen to another health care worker on their return," Hyman said.
Besides Christie and O'Dowd, the suit also names Gary Ludwig and Christopher Rinn, two Department of Health officials, as defendants.
The Department of Health does not comment on pending litigation, said spokeswoman Donna Leusner.
Brian Murray, a spokesman for Christie, said the governor's office would not comment because the suit is a pending legal matter. But the spokesman cited a 2014 interview in which a reporter asked the governor about a potential lawsuit over the quarantine, to which Christie responded, "Well, whatever. Get in line. I've been sued lots of times before. Get in line. I'm happy to take it on."