State Law May Provide a Remedy for Breach of HIPAA’s Privacy Rules
When a woman received extortion threats and other forms of harassment from an ex-lover, she sued her medical provider for unauthorized disclosure of her medical records. Byrne v. Avery Center for Obstetrics and Gynecology, P.C., 314 Conn. 433 (2014). She further alleged that the threats and harassment directly resulted from a breach of the defendant’s duty of confidentiality under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (“HIPAA”). During her course of treatment, the defendant provided her with a copy of its notice of privacy practices that expressly stated it would not disclose medical records without obtaining authorization from the patient. Additionally, the plaintiff specifically instructed the defendant not to disclose her medical records to her ex-lover. But, when her ex-lover filed a paternity suit against her and served the defendant with a subpoena requesting a copy of her medical records, the defendant failed to notify her of the subpoena, to file a motion to quash the subpoena, or to appear in court. Instead, the defendant mailed a copy of her medical records to him.
As a result, the plaintiff filed four claims against the defendant. First, the plaintiff alleged that the defendant breached its contract when it disclosed her protected health information (“PHI”) in violation of its notice of privacy practices. Second, she claimed that the defendant was negligent when it failed to care for her PHI and disclosed her PHI without her authorization. Her third and fourth claims were for negligent misrepresentation and negligent infliction of emotional distress.
Since HIPAA does not create a private right of action for breach of its privacy provisions, the trial court interpreted common law claims for negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress that relate to a breach of HIPAA’s privacy rules as inconsistent with HIPAA. Thus, in reliance on HIPAA’s preemption provision, the trial court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment on the claims for negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress. Notably, the claims for breach of contract and negligent misrepresentation were not dismissed by the trial court, thus these claims were not reviewed on appeal.
On November 11, 2014, the Supreme Court of Connecticut held that HIPAA does not preempt a private cause of action arising from the unauthorized disclosure of PHI based on state common law, thereby reversing the trial court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims for negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress. Specifically, the Court found that if state law provides a plaintiff with a remedy for a medical provider’s breach of its duty of confidentiality, HIPAA does not preempt the plaintiff’s state law remedies for negligence or negligent infliction of emotional distress. Rather, a state law will be preempted by HIPAA only if it is impossible for a medical provider to comply with both the federal and state laws. Furthermore, a state law is not preempted by HIPAA if it relates to the privacy of PHI and provides an individual with greater privacy protection than HIPAA.
The Court did not analyze whether Connecticut law provides a remedy for a medical provider’s breach of its duty of confidentiality, it only determined that HIPAA would not preempt an available remedy under state law. Thus, the Court did not decide whether the plaintiff was successful in her claims for negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress. The Court did, however, find that HIPAA may be used to determine the applicable standard of care for such state law claims.
For more information regarding the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act or for assistance with your privacy law needs, please contact Jane Shea, Chad Eckhardt or any other attorney in Frost Brown Todd’s Privacy and Information Security Law Practice Group.