HIPAA Complaint Basis For Texas Whistleblower Claim

In a March 19, 2009 ruling, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas recently recognized that the Texas Whistleblower Act prohibits health care organizations run by the State of Texas from retaliating against employees for making good faith complaints of violations of the Privacy Rules of the Health Insurance Portability Act (“HIPAA”).Nevertheless, the court dismissed the wrongful discharge lawsuit brought by a former Terrell State Hospital security guard who alleged he was wrongfully fired for complaining to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights (”OCR”) that the Hospital violated the HIPAA Privacy Rules because the plaintiff had failed to present sufficient proof that he was terminated in retaliation for filing a HIPAA complaint.

 

Illustrative of a growing number of state law retaliatory discharge claims brought be employees claiming to have been retaliated against for complaining about alleged violations of HIPAA’s Privacy Rules, Faulkner v. Department of State Health Servs., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 22419 (N.D. Tex. Mar. 19, 2009), involved claims made by plaintiff Anthony Faulkner (”Faulkner”) that the Texas Department of State Health Services (”DSHS”); Terrell State Hospital; Texas DSHS Commissioner David L. Lakey, M.D.; Terrell State Hospital Superintendent Fred Hale; and Terrell State Hospital Risk Management Coordinator Clent Holmes, R.N. violated the Whistleblower Act and the First and Fourteenth Amendments by firing him seven days after he complained to OCR that Terrell State Hospital violated the HIPAA Privacy Rule by leaving admissions logs containing patient names and admission dates in a public area.

The Texas Whistleblower Act generally prohibits a state or local governmental entity from terminating or taking any other adverse personnel action against a public employee who in good faith reports a violation of law by the employing governmental entity or another public employee to an appropriate law enforcement authority.See Tex. Gov’t Code § 554.002(a).While the Court affirmed that the Texas Whistleblower Act permits a public employee of the State of Texas discharged or otherwise retaliated against for complaining in good faith to OCR that his public employer or its employee violated the HIPAA Privacy Rules, the Court nevertheless granted summary judgment to the defendants.

According to the court, Faulkner’s failure to introduce evidence rebutting defendant’s affidavit that he was terminated for repeatedly violating rules requiring him to report suspected abuse of patients precluded him from proving his termination was in retaliation for his filing of the HIPAA complaint.Meanwhile, the court also ruled that Faulkner’s claims against the individual defendants should be dismissed as the Whistleblower Act only creates a cause of action against governmental entities and not their employees. Having found Faulkner’s constitutional claims also without merit, the District Court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

While the defendants were able to overcome Faulkner’s retaliatory discharge claim, the decision highlights the need for health care providers and other HIPAA covered entities to take appropriate precautions to defend against potential wrongful discharge, retaliation or other claims by employees or other service providers for complaining of possible HIPAA violations or for attempting to exercise other HIPAA-protected rights.HIPAA covered entities now should avoid engaging in actions that might unnecessarily fuel claims of retaliation.  They also should carefully document and preserve evidence necessary to demonstrate the legitimacy of their disciplinary actions on an ongoing basis.

We hope you found this information helpful. If your organization needs assistance with understanding or managing its responsibilities or liabilities under HIPAA or other health care or employment laws or wishes to inquire about HIPAA training or other services and experience of Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, please contact Ms. Stamer via e-mail at Cstamer@Solutionslawyer.net or by telephoning Ms. Stamer at 469.767.8872.You also can review other helpful resources and register to receive other updates at CynthiaStamer.com.

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