US Court of Appeals Ruling Suggests Legal Action Possible for Privacy Breaches Under 14th Amendment

A ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit suggests individuals whose privacy has been violated could potentially take legal action under the 14th amendment, but has confirmed that there is no private cause of action under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) when an individual’s privacy is violated as a result of an improper disclosure of their protected health information.

The case in question was Payne v. Taslimi.  Plaintiff Christopher N. Payne initiated the legal action against correctional facility physician Jahal Taslimi. Payne was incarcerated at Deep Meadow Correctional Center and alleged there was an impermissible disclosure of his confidential medical data. Payne claimed Taslimi had come to his bedside and stated in a loud and clear voice – allegedly within earshot of staff members, other inmates, and civilians – that he had not taken his HIV medication. 

Payne claimed that his medical records were confidential and covered by HIPAA and that his rights under HIPAA had been violated by Taslimi. He also claimed that he had a right to privacy under the 14th Amendment. The case was heard in district court, which dismissed the lawsuit.

Payne appealed and the case went before the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which ruled that the decision of the district court was correct as there is currently no private cause of action under HIPAA. Additionally the court affirmed the decision of the district court to strike out the claim that there had been a breach of the 14th Amendment.

The Court of Appeals stated in the ruling that there could only have been a violation of the 14th Amendment if Payne had “a reasonable expectation of privacy” in relation to information regarding his HIV medications. Since Payne was a Deep Meadow Correctional Center prisoner, the court ruled that Payne lacked a reasonable expectation of privacy concerning his diagnosis and treatment program, particularly as the information was about a communicable disease.

The court deemed that the test in such cases is whether there is a reasonable government interest that takes precedence over a plaintiff’s privacy interest. The ruling indicates that there could be a cause of action under the 14th Amendment in situations where private medical information has been publicly shared when there is no compelling government interest.

Author: Maria Perez