A Superior Court judge has dismissed a parents’ lawsuit against the Connecticut Department of Public Health over the release of school-level vaccination data.
Brian and Kristen Festa, of Bristol, challenged DPH’s decision to release school-by-school vaccination data in May. The report also included the percentage of kids with religious and medical exemptions at each school.
The Festas claimed that making the data public violated medical privacy rights and caused harm to families like theirs who do not vaccinate, even though the data did not identify students by name. The couple has a 7-year-old son with autism who attends a school with a high exemption rate.
Attorneys representing DPH sought to dismiss the case on the grounds that the Festas failed to exhaust their administrative remedies, like submitting a petition to DPH for declaratory relief or judgement on the issue before it made its way to court in a civil lawsuit.
Superior Court Judge Susan Cobb agreed with that argument in her ruling Friday.
“By failing to bring their own request for declaratory relief, the plaintiffs (Festas) effectively denied the defendant (DPH) the opportunity to review the plaintiff’s specific and personal circumstances,” Cobb wrote in her ruling.
Brian Festa helped write a letter submitted to DPH Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell on May 3 by LeeAnn Ducat, founder of Informed Choice CT, a citizen-led group that opposes mandatory vaccines.
The letter addressed general issues related to the vaccination data release, but it did not mention any details specific to the Festas’ complaints and was only signed by Ducat. Cobb wrote that it therefore was not an acceptable petition.
“The plaintiffs were not even mentioned or identified in the letter,” Cobb wrote, “and their particularized, personal circumstances related to the confidentiality of the information, including their school size, (son’s) physical and mental issues, and the reason they exercised an (religious) exemption, were not included in the letter.”
The Festas are represented by attorney Cara Pavalock-D’Amato. She said Cobb’s decision to dismiss the case is a procedural ruling, which means it’s not the end of the road for her clients.
“It is one of the most technical reasons for a case to get dismissed, but at the same time, it’s the easiest to fix,” she said.
Pavalock-D’Amato said the Festas have already submitted a new letter to DPH that details how they have personally been impacted by the school-level vaccination data release and reasons why data like this should not be public.
Pavalock-D’Amato said they expect the commissioner to deny their petition, but they will then be able to prove that the Festas have exhausted administrative remedies if the couple chooses to appeal Cobb’s decision or file a new case.
A request for comment from attorneys representing DPH was not immediately returned.
Coleman-Mitchell joined Gov. Ned Lamont and Democratic legislators earlier this month to announce that they would support efforts to eliminate the state’s religious exemption for mandatory vaccinations in order to preserve immunization levels and prevent future disease outbreaks.
Public health officials said they intend to release a second report on school-by-school vaccination and exemption data in October for the 2018/2019 school year.