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Workplace Privacy, Data Management & Security Report

Former Patient Advocate took Medical Records from Hospital, Alleges Hospital Instructed her to Destroy Them

Approximately 233 pages of confidential patient grievance files are at the center of a legal storm in U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota.  In the case of Peterson v. HealthEast Woodwinds Hospital, the plaintiff, a former Patient Advocate, alleges she was instructed to improperly destroy medical files. According to her Complaint, this caused Peterson stress that required her to take a leave of absence and led her to attempt suicide. In her Complaint, Peterson asserts counts under the Family Medical Leave Act, Improper Destruction of Documents, Violation of Public Policy, and Negligent and Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress. Among other things, she alleges she was told to remove and destroy and medical related correspondence with patients or families that could become discoverable during any potential medical negligence or personal injury claim against the hospital. She also alleges she was ordered not to discuss with a first-time mother patient an allegation that an OB-GYN physician was inebriated during a delivery. Peterson was terminated on June 1, 2011 for not coming to work and failing to maintain contact with her employer.

Prior to her departure, Peterson took home medical records and files which she claims support her legal claims. When the hospital learned of this in the course of discovery, it demanded the documents be returned citing patient privacy concerns under HIPAA. After the parties were unable to come to an agreement, the magistrate judge assigned to the case issued an Order instructing Peterson to provide copies to the hospital, designating the records "attorney’s eyes only", and ordering that all copies be returned to the hospital at the conclusion of the litigation.  The court based its order on the so-called HIPAA Whistleblower exception at 45 C.F.R. Section 164.502(j)(i).  That section provides that a covered entity will not be considered to have violated the privacy requirements of HIPAA if a member of its workforce, who believes in good faith that the covered entity has engaged in conduct that is unlawful or otherwise violates professional or clinical standards, discloses protected health information to her attorney or a public health authority.

Employers are often confronted with the frustration of learning that a disgruntled employee or former employee has taken home confidential or trade secret documents which he or she intended to use to protect their interests, whether in litigation or otherwise. In this case, the hospital faced the added concern of confidentiality under HIPAA.