Clinic Lawsuit Challenges Ebola Quarantines

The Legal Services Organization at Yale Law School, Connecticut residents, and their representatives filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court on Monday, February 8, 2016 challenging a pattern and practice of unlawful quarantine of travelers from countries affected by Ebola.

The plaintiffs include one current and one former Yale public health student quarantined upon their return from a humanitarian trip to Liberia in fall 2014; a West African family of six that was quarantined in October 2014; the aunt in whose house the family was quarantined and who was required to care for them; a religious leader who travels between churches in West Haven and Liberia and his wife; the Liberian Community Association of Connecticut; and a physician who specializes in emergency medicine and has treated Ebola patients in West Africa.

The lawsuit stems from events that took place in the fall of 2014 when West Africa was facing an Ebola epidemic and media accounts stoked public fears that travelers would carry the virus across the Atlantic to Connecticut. During that time, Governor Malloy granted the state Department of Public Health (DPH) sweeping authority to quarantine anyone entering Connecticut from West Africa. DPH used that power to quarantine immigrants and public health students who showed no symptoms of Ebola, in violation of state and federal statutes and the Connecticut and United States Constitutions, according to the lawsuit.

“Being quarantined made me feel like a criminal,” said Laura Skrip, a student at the Yale School of Public Health, who was quarantined in October 2014 after she returned home from a trip to provide technical assistance to the Liberian government. “If I had posed any threat to the public, I would have voluntarily quarantined myself. But there was no scientific reason to confine me to my apartment, with no visitors and a police officer parked outside my door for two weeks.”

“Liberians in Connecticut experienced terrible stigma because of the quarantines, which sent a clear message to our neighbors that Liberians were dangerous – even though no one in Connecticut ever had Ebola,” said Bishop Harmon Yalartai, a plaintiff and religious leader of six churches in Liberia and one in West Haven. Bishop Yalartai is currently traveling in Liberia with his wife Esther Yalartai, another plaintiff.

“The effects of the quarantines were severe,” said Flomo Freeman, President of the Liberian Community Association of Connecticut. “Young children who should have been making new friends in school were confined in a basement for three weeks. Local Liberians were asked by community members not to return to work and to keep their children off of public school buses. Community members fear traveling to see family and friends in Liberia because we know from the state’s past conduct that future Ebola cases in West Africa may spur further mistreatment in Connecticut.”

“Sometimes public health crises require governments to make difficult tradeoffs between individual rights and community safety,” said Dr. Kyle Edwards ’18, a law student intern with a doctorate in public health and one of the students representing the plaintiffs. “This wasn’t one of those cases. The public health benefits of these quarantines were imaginary, while the harms were very real. Public health experts say future Ebola outbreaks are highly likely, but Connecticut’s drastic quarantine measures deter public health workers from volunteering and benefit no one. Going forward, the state needs to base quarantine decisions on science, not fear and politics.”

“Connecticut officials knew and acknowledged that the people subject to quarantine were not sick and posed no threat to the public, but the state still imprisoned them in their homes for weeks without providing food or other essential services,” said Elizabeth Deutsch ’16, another law student intern representing the plaintiffs. “Governor Malloy has not revoked his emergency order authorizing quarantine of asymptomatic travelers, nor have state officials disavowed their unlawful and unjustified quarantine policies and practices.”

The plaintiffs have filed a proposed class action against Governor Dannel Malloy, Acting Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Public Health Raul Pino, and former Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Public Health Dr. Jewel Mullen. The Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School represents the plaintiffs. The lawsuit builds on a report issued in December 2015 by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Yale Global Health Justice Partnership, a collaboration between Yale’s law and public health schools.  

The Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization (LSO) provides legal representation to individuals and organizations in need of legal services but unable to afford private attorneys. Students, supervised by Law School faculty members and participating attorneys, handle all aspects of the representations.

The Global Health Justice Partnership (GHJP) is a program hosted jointly by Yale Law School and Yale School of Public Health that tackles contemporary problems at the interface of global health, human rights, and social justice. The GHJP is pioneering an innovative, interdisciplinary field of scholarship, teaching, and practice to promote health justice.