Doe v. Medlantic

Case Summary for my Law & Bioethics graduate school course

by Don Stacy

 

John DOE, Appellant, v. MEDLANTIC HEALTH CARE GROUP, INC., Appellee, D.C. Ct. App., 814 A.2d 939 (2003).

 

COURT

Federal District of Columbia Court of Appeals

 

PARTIES

Plaintiff/Appellant: John Doe

Defendant/Appellee: Medlantic Health Care Group, Inc.

 

FACTS

John Doe held two jobs, one by day for a federal agency and the other by night for a company that contracted to clean the Department of State. Doe’s co-worker at the Department of State, Tijuana Goldring, also worked a second job as a receptionist at Washington Hospital Center (WHC), where Doe was being treated for HIV. Doe had never informed any person at either job of his HIV diagnosis. After a clinic reevaluation at WHC, Doe stopped by Goldring’s desk to pay her a visit. At the end of their conversation, Goldring requested the correct spelling of his unusual last name, which Doe provided. Shortly thereafter, Goldring informed another co-worker at the Department of State that Doe had HIV and claimed she had obtained the information from WHC. Not long after that, Doe learned that his co-workers at the Department of State were suddenly aware of his HIV diagnosis. Doe was unmercifully ridiculed, shunned, and scorned by these co-workers. Doe ultimately contacted the Vice President of Personnel and Human Resources at WHC, who referred him to WHC’s risk management department.

 

PLAINTIFF/APPELLANT’S CONTENTIONS

Doe sued Tijuana Goldring, alleging tort claims of invasion of privacy due to her disclosure of his HIV diagnosis. Doe also sued Medlantic Heath Care Group, Inc. (the owner of WHC), alleging breach of confidential relationship due to WHC’s negligence in permitting Goldring to access his confidential patient information.

 

DEFENDANT/APPELLEE’S CONTENTIONS

Tijuana Goldring and Medlantic Health Care Group, Inc. denied all allegations.

 

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

As noted above, Doe brought a lawsuit in federal court against Tijuana Goldring and Medlantic Health Care Group, Inc. seeking damages for sustained as a result of (1) invasion of privacy due to disclosure of his HIV diagnosis by Goldring and (2) breach of confidential relationship due to Goldring’s access to his confidential patient information permitted by WHC.

Goldring was dismissed from the case because her disclosure of Doe’s confidential medical information was not within the scope of her employment at WHC.

The case against Medlantic Health Care Group, Inc. proceeded to trial. The jury eventually awarded damages of $250,000 to Doe after finding Medlantic liable for breach of confidential relationship. However, the trial judge determined at Doe’s claim was time barred by the relevant statute of limitations and granted a motion of judgment for defendant.

Doe appealed.

 

ISSUES

  • Does a provider have a duty to not disclose information that the provider has learned within a patient-provider relationship?
  • If a provider has such a duty, does the obligation of confidentiality associated with the patient-provider relationship carry a duty stricter than the “reasonable person” test?
  • Is expert testimony always required to establish the applicable standard of care in a healthcare negligence case?
  • Are adherence to and the success of provider nondisclosure protocols relevant to breach of confidentiality claims?
  • When does a statute of limitations begin to accrue in a healthcare breach of confidentiality claim?

 

HOLDINGS

  • A provider has the duty to not disclose to a third party any nonpublic information that the provider has learned within a confidential patient-provider relationship if the particular disclosure has not been consented to by the relevant patient.
  • The duty noted above is stricter than the “reasonable person” test. A “reasonable person” is not an “average person”, for a “reasonable person” is fair, knowledgeable of the relevant law, and capable. The level of duty associated with a confidential patient-provider relationship is equivalent to a fiduciary relationship, in which a fiduciary (provider) must act with the highest degree of loyalty, honesty, and reliability towards the client (patient).
  • Expert testimony is typically but not always required to establish the applicable standard of care in a healthcare negligence case. The primary exception to the requirement for expert testimony (to establish the relevant standard of care) in a healthcare negligence case is where the alleged departure from the medical standard of care can easily be recognized by a layperson.
  • Poor adherence to provider nondisclosure protocols and failure of such protocols in preventing disclosure of confidential information are evidence of medical breach of confidentiality.
  • The statute of limitations begins to accrue in a healthcare breach of confidentiality claim when the plaintiff is deemed to be on “inquiry notice”, which is the point in time that a reasonable person would become aware of the breach based on a basic investigation of the situation.

 

RULES

  • A provider has the duty to not disclose to a third party any nonpublic information that the provider has learned within a confidential patient-provider relationship if the particular disclosure has not been consented to by the relevant patient.
  • The provider nondisclosure duty is equivalent to a fiduciary duty.
  • Expert testimony is not required to establish a medical standard of care in a healthcare negligence case if the alleged departure from the medical standard of care can be easily recognized by a layperson.
  • Adherence to provider nondisclosure protocols and the success of such protocols are types of evidence in a medical breach of confidentiality case.
  • The statute of limitations begins to accrue in a healthcare breach of confidentiality claim when the patient is deemed to be on inquiry notice.

 

RESULT

The original trial court’s entry of judgment for Medlantic Health Care Group Inc. was reserved and he case was remanded back to the original court with instructions that the jury verdict ($250,000 awarded to John Doe) be reinstated and judgment entered in favor of John Doe.

 

IMPLICATIONS/ETHICAL CONSIDERATIONS

This case established that the level of duty associated with the tort of breach of a confidential relationship is equivalent to a fiduciary duty (stricter than the “reasonable person” test).