Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Medical privacy breach was "under color of state law"

Four guys who worked for the New York City Fire Department held a grudge against one of their colleagues. According to the plaintiff, these guys accessed plaintiff's medical records from the FDNY system and leaked them to the Village Voice, damaging plaintiff's candidacy for public office. The Court of Appeals says the plaintiff can sue these fellas under Section 1983.

The case is Gleason v. Scoppetta, a summary order decided on May 19. Section 1983 is the civil rights law that allows you to enforce rights under the Constitution. In order to win under Section 1983, you have to show the defendants acted under "color of law." However, says the Court of Appeals (Pooler, Sack and Ramos [D.J.]), "not all acts performed by public employees are under color of state law: 'Acts of officers in the ambit of their personal pursuits are plainly excluded.' 'There is no bright line test for distinguishing personal pursuits from activities taken under color of law.'"

The defendants worked for the fire department. But the district court dismissed the case, ruling that the complaint did not plausibly show that defendants acted under color of state law. The Court of Appeals disagrees, stating "The FDNY is the entity that maintains Gleason’s medical information. That medical information was accessed by Grogan, Belnavis, Boles, and/or Reynolds by using 'a false login' to obtain files on a computer belonging to the Bureau of Fire Investigations, where Grogan was a Supervising Fire Marshal. One or more of those defendants then provided that medical information to a reporter who wrote an article in the Village Voice, which caused harm to Gleason, including by damaging his candidacy for the New York City Council."

According to the district court, "Defendants forwarded to the Village Voice records showing Gleason took frequent sick and disability leave from the FDNY. On August 19, 2009, the Voice published "District One Council Race: The Skinny on Pete Gleason," which characterized Gleason as a malingerer. Plaintiff blames the article for his loss at the polls and defendants for conspiring to violate his rights to free speech, due process, and privacy." The Court of Appeals says plaintiff can proceed against these guys for violating his privacy rights because they misused the authority that the City had granted them in that they had access to the medical files by virtue of their government employment. The fact that they did so out of a "personal grudge" doesn't matter. Nor does it matter that defendants did not screw over the plaintiff in the pursuit of their official firefighting duties. For now, the lawsuit plausibly states a claim, and plaintiff can now proceed to discovery.

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