A Hinds County judge ruled in favor of The Pine Belt NEWS Tuesday and has ordered the Mississippi State Department of Health to release the names of Forrest County long-term care facilities where 26 patients have died from COVID-19 complications.
The lawsuit was filed May 12 by Hattiesburg attorney Matthew Lawrence after the weekly newspaper made numerous attempts to obtain the information through traditional means – including the filing of a formal complaint with the Mississippi Ethics Commission.
David Gustafson, publisher of The PineBelt NEWS, said he chose to pursue relief through the courts when officials from the ethics commission told him it would likely be several months before they could take up the case.
“Needless to say, we are extremely pleased that the Court ruled in our favor,” said Gustafson. “Unfortunately, we live in a day and age when secrecy in government generates suspicion and mistrust on the part of our citizenry and I’m proud to lead a news organization that isn’t afraid to ask the tough questions and seek the answers that our readers deserve.”
In her ruling, Chancellor Tiffany Grove concluded that MSDH officials failed to abide by the requirements as set forth by the Mississippi Public Records Act of 1983.
Specifically, Grove said that MSDH:
** Failed to produce the requested records in seven days.
** Failed to provide a written explanation of why the documents could not be produced in seven days.
** Failed to provide a written statement of the specific exemption relied upon for denial of the requested documents.
“While the Court is sympathetic to the untenable position of MSDH in facing the current pandemic with limited resources and capabilities, the legislature has mandated certain actions by all public bodies in an effort to maintain transparency and public access to public records,” wrote Grove. “Unfortunately, MSDH failed in its legislative duty to provide public access.”
In her ruling, Grove determined that an emergency injunction against MSDH was necessary to prevent “irreparable harm” to The PineBelt News and its parent company, Hattiesburg Publishing, Inc.
“Denying (the newspaper) access to public records in violation of the Mississippi Public Records Act of 1983 will result in a lack of information which will significantly hinder PBN’s ability to inform the public, which will lead to a loss of audience and an ultimate loss of business.”
During a hearing held May 20, Lawrence argued that the names of the affected long-term care facilities were not protected by state law. The newspaper has not requested the names of individual patients.
“This is a win for the people of the state of Mississippi,” said Lawrence. “While there are many areas where the state supplants the law and the will of the people with its own authority that need to be addressed, this ruling establishes that the people’s voice and the law still matter.”
“The spirit and intent of the Public Records Act is clear,” he said. “A government which does not have the confidence of the people cannot govern effectively.”
In all, 26 residents of Forrest County have died from COVID-19 exposure at local long-term care facilities – the second-most of any county in the state. Only Lauderdale County (Meridian) has more LTC-related deaths at 37.
Statewide, there have been 1,727 positive cases and 332 deaths reported in similar facilities that include “nursing homes, intermediate care facilities for individuals with intellectual disabilities, personal care homes, assisted living facilities, long-term acute facilities and psychiatric or chemical dependency residential treatment centers.”
The state Health Department has previously acknowledged that it considers these facilities to be “high-risk locations because their residents are older or in poor health.”
In a statement released May 15 in support of the lawsuit, Kevin Cooper, the president of the Mississippi Press Association, called on MSDH officials to release the information sought in the lawsuit and to commit to better transparency.
“In the best of times, Mississippi citizens are entitled to adequate disclosure of information from the State Department of Health and other agencies,” said Cooper. “Certainly, in these times of a great public health crisis, MSDH should do more to release information the public deserves to know about where and how this disease has spread.”
In response to the ruling, the newspaper made another formal request for the information via email on Tuesday afternoon and the request was forwarded to the department's legal counsel for review, according to Liz Sharlot, MSDH director of communication.
When asked for a formal statement about the decision, Sharlot replied: "The Agency will be happy to comply with the Chancellors' order."
To read the full decision, click here: https://bit.ly/36yFGxE