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From Health Law Daily, January 29, 2014

Nurse’s disclosure of patient information was not a breach of clinic’s fiduciary duty of confidentiality

By Michelle L. Oxman, JD, LLM

The Guthrie Clinic was not liable to a patient for damages caused by its nurse’s disclosure of information about his treatment for a sexually transmitted disease because it did not breach any fiduciary duty to him under state law. Therefore, the trial court’s dismissal of the complaint against the clinic was affirmed (Doe v Guthrie Clinic, Ltd.January 27, 2014, per curiam).

The disclosure of information. Doe came to the Guthrie Clinic (Clinic) for treatment of a sexually transmitted disease (STD). When a nurse employed by the clinic recognized him as her sister-in-law’s boyfriend, she checked his medical records. After confirming that the patient was being treated for an STD, she sent a text message to her sister-in-law informing her.

The clinic’s action. When the patient complained to the clinic that his confidential information had been disclosed without his permission, the clinic fired the nurse. It then sent a letter to the patient acknowledging the breach of confidentiality and describing the actions it had taken to prevent its recurrence.

The lawsuit. The patient sued the clinic for the breach under several legal theories. All claims had been dismissed. On appeal to the Second Circuit, the court affirmed the dismissal of all the patient’s claims except for the breach of fiduciary duty to maintain the confidentiality of his information. It found that the nurse disclosed the patient’s information for purely personal reasons and that her actions were not reasonably foreseeable to the clinic owner. However, the court did not have sufficient information to decide the question whether New York law would recognize such a claim against the corporate owner of a medical practice arising out of the conduct of a nonphysician outside the scope of her employment. Therefore, the court certified that question to the New York Court of Appeals.

The law of New York. On January 9, 2014, the Court of Appeals answered the certified question. The court ruled that under the traditional doctrine of vicarious liability, the corporation was not responsible for the actions of the nurse because she was not performing her duties for her employer when she made the disclosure and her actions were not reasonably foreseeable. Although Doe had no enforceable claim against the clinic for the nurse’s action, he might be able to state a claim for the clinic’s failure to train employees properly or to maintain required policies and procedures.

The final ruling. Having received the answer to the certified question, the court upheld the dismissal of the complaint.

The case number is 12-2045-cv.

Attorneys: Joseph Andrew Gawlowicz (Brown & Hutchinson) for John Doe. Martha Brockway Stolley (Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP) for Guthrie Clinic, Ltd., Guthrie Health, Guthrie Healthcare System, Guthrie Health Plan, Inc. and Guthrie Clinic, Inc.

Companies: Guthrie Clinic, Ltd.; Guthrie Health; Guthrie Healthcare System; Guthrie Health Plan, Inc.; Guthrie Clinic, Inc.

MainStory: TopStory ConfidentialityNews NewYorkNews ConnecticutNews VermontNews

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