What privacy rights is a Plaintiff afforded for the medical information related to a workers’ compensation claim?
Mastanduno v. Nat’l Freight Industries
The opinion arose from an interlocutory appeal by the plaintiff regarding his privacy interests in personal medical information in Industrial Commission records and decisions. The plaintiff was a truck driver who slipped and fell while moving a pallet while working for the employer. The claim was accepted, but several years later the defendants filed a request for hearing contending the plaintiff was no longer disabled. Prior to the evidentiary hearing the plaintiff moved that all information regarding the hearing be sealed so that it not be a part of the public record. Industrial Commission Opinion and Awards are publicly accessible online and contain histories of medical treatment related to injuries. The plaintiff wished to have his personal information sealed from the searchable database. The deputy commissioner and Full Commission denied the motion and the plaintiff appealed to the Court of Appeals.
The plaintiff appealed to the Court of Appeals arguing privacy interests rooted in statute and the U.S. Constitution. He argued that his privacy interests must be protected by judicial order. The plaintiff primarily argued that Whalen v. Roe, 429 U.S. 589, 97 S. Ct. 869, 51 L. Ed. 2d 64 (1977) supported a constitutional privacy right. The Court noted that the General Assembly had already decided records that were not Awards issued by the Industrial Commission were not public record pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 97-92(b) (2017). Thus, medical records and other documents are shielded from public disclosure. The Awards themselves were intended by the legislature to be public records as referenced in Morrison v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 319 N.C. 298, 303, 354 S.E.2d 495, 498 (1987). The Court also disagreed with Plaintiff’s arguments that physician-patient privilege and HIPPA applied to an Award by the Commission which was not a medical record and the Industrial Commission is not a “covered entity” under HIPPA. Finally, the Court of Appeals addressed the plaintiff’s Constitutional arguments by finding that his privacy interests were outweighed by the State Legislatures determination Industrial Commission Awards had a special public interest as official public records.
This case is an important reminder that the workers’ compensation system deals with sensitive medical issues of claimants. It is in the interest of all parties to be mindful of the sensitivity of this information, protect medical records, and avoid as many concerns with privacy of the claimant as possible. While privacy protections do not extend to an Opinion and Award, medical records have the protection of HIPPA and many of the privacy rights brought forth by the plaintiff. Consequently, this information should be safeguarded by carriers, employers, and attorneys as required by law.
If you have any concerns regarding the privacy rights of a claimant and the legal requirements for the protection of medical records please reach out to one of our attorneys to discuss further.