A federal judge will hear a motion on May 18 to dismiss a lawsuit challenging a local health agency’s quarantine order last year. Among other things, the order required schoolchildren who had been in close contact with someone with COVID-19 to be quarantined.
Health Officer Rebecca Burns of the Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Community Health Agency issued the order on Sept. 22, 2021, replacing a Sept. 3 quarantine order.
Stacy Wohlheter’s son and daughter attend Reading Community Schools, and the health agency required them to quarantine under the Sept. 3 order. Wohlheter and Jennifer Wortz, another Reading Community Schools parent and the chair of Moms for Liberty Branch and Hillsdale County, filed a lawsuit in the First Judicial Circuit Court for the County of Hillsdale against Burns, the health agency, and the school district on Sept. 27, 2021.
In the complaint, Daren Wiseley, the attorney for the moms, their children, and Moms for Liberty, argued that the Sept. 22 quarantine order cited laws and an administrative rule that did not justify the order. He also argued the quarantine orders violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause.
On Sept. 29, 2021, Democratic Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a budget bill for the 2022 fiscal year. Under the bill, local health departments would not receive funds for “essential local public health services” if the local health officer had any emergency order related to an epidemic in effect as of October 1, 2021, without approval from a county board of commissioners.
Burns rescinded the Sept. 22 quarantine order on Sept. 30.
Wortz said the lawsuit is still important because the budget bill was temporary and did not solve the problem of unelected officials issuing health orders.
“It’s a clause in the budget that was approved for this year,” Wortz said. “It’s not a permanent thing, and nothing permanent has been passed, because they’ll pass a bill — it’ll pass in the house; it’ll pass in the senate, but then the governor will veto it, and they don’t have enough conservatives or democrats willing to vote with them to override her veto.”
In November, the school district and the health agency removed the case to United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan. The defendants could choose to have the federal court decide the case instead of the state court because the case related to the Fourteenth Amendment.
After removing the case to the Western District of Michigan, the defendants asked Judge Hala Jarbou to dismiss the plaintiffs’ complaint.
In Reading Community Schools’ motion to dismiss, the school district’s attorney Travis Comstock argued the court does not have jurisdiction over the case because the health agency rescinded the orders and publicly stated it would not reissue them.
Wiseley said the case should not be dismissed since the plaintiffs’ rights were violated.
“The problem is, one, people’s rights were still violated; there was still harm,” Wiseley said. “Not only that, but this needs to be litigated so this doesn’t happen again.”
A hearing on the motion to dismiss will be held before Magistrate Judge Phillip Green on May 18.
Comstock and Burns declined to comment on the case. Andrew Brege, the attorney for Burns and the health agency, and Chuck North, the superintendent of Reading Community Schools, did not respond to requests for comment.