No private right of action to enforce HIPAA, district court rules

A patient, whose medical information was sent to an open facsimile machine of a retail store by the hospital which treated him, did not have a private right of action to enforce the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), a federal district court in California has ruled. Because the statute does not provide a private right of action, and does not provide a remedy in court for those persons who believe their HIPAA rights have been violated, the patient was unable to state a cognizable claim for a HIPAA violation.

Background.

The patient who claimed to suffer from “an organic mental disorder” alleged that he was injured in a slip and fall accident while a consumer at a California Home Depot store. He sought treatment at Ridgecrest Regional Hospital (Ridgecrest) for his injury where, in August 2015, he discussed the fact that he was engaged in negotiations with Home Depot with an employee he identified as a “pay agent” at Ridgecrest. The employee asked him if he would like her to send an invoice to Home Depot to see if they would pay the hospital so that she could “clear the books.”
He alleged that on August 28, 2015, the employee sent a facsimile from Ridgecrest to an open facsimile machine at Home Depot, a non-covered entity, and that the facsimile contained complete treatment notes providing personal information beyond the minimum necessary required for billing purposes. He contended that the employee did not have his authorization to send any health information to Home Depot including his health records and treatment sheets, and that as a result of the employee’s action, Home Depot terminated any further settlement negotiations with him. He filed a pro se lawsuit alleging among other things, negligence, wrongful disclosure of protected health information in violation of HIPPA (42 U.S.C. §1320d-6), and violation of various California statutes.

Wrongful disclosures.

The court noted that the purpose of HIPAA is to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the health information system through the establishment of standards and requirements for the electronic transmission of certain health information. As the court had previously informed the patient, there is no private right of action to enforce HIPAA when an individual believes that a disclosure was wrongfully made. Because the statute does not provide a private right of action, and does not provide a remedy in court for those persons who believe their HIPAA rights have been violated, the patient was unable to state a cognizable claim for a HIPAA violation. Consequently, the court recommended that his claims for HIPPA violations be dismissed without leave to amend.

Fourteenth Amendment violations.

The patient had also asserted violations of his right to equal treatment under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The court pointed out that such claims may be brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983, as a method for vindicating federal rights elsewhere conferred and does not provide substantive rights. However, in order to prevail, a plaintiff must allege facts from which it may be inferred (1) he was deprived of a federal right, and (2) a person or entity who committed the alleged violation acted under color of state law.

Acting under color of law.

Importantly, private parties are not generally deemed to be acting under color of state law, the presumption being that private conduct does not constitute governmental action. The court recited a four-prong test for determining whether a private individual’s actions implicate state action, and concluded that the patient had not pleaded facts sufficient to support a conclusion that Ridgecrest had in fact “become the government” for the purposes of satisfying the test.
Accordingly, the court recommended that the HIPAA claims be dismissed without leave to amend, and that his other claims be dismissed without prejudice.

SOURCE: Emmerick v. Ridgecrest Regional Hospital, (E.D. Cal.), No. 1:17-cv-01160-AWI-JLT, May 7, 2018.
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