Michigan Court of Appeals Rules State Law on Patient Privacy Trumps HIPAA In Certain Circumstances

HIPAA CompliantA new published health law opinion from the Michigan Court of Appeals could have some far reaching effects on HIPAA litigation.

In the case of Isidore Steiner, DPM, PC v Marc Bonanni, Dr. Bonanni was employed by Isadore Steiner, DPM, PC and his contract included a non-competition and non-solicitation provision. After Dr. Bonanni left his employment with them, Isidore Steiner, DPM, PC sued him for allegedly violating the non-solicitation provision of the contract and stealing their patients. In order to prove their allegations, Isidore Steiner, DPM, PC sought Dr. Bonanni’s patient list during the discovery portion of the case.

The Michigan Court of Appeals found that the patient list was not discoverable as it was privileged under Michigan law. The Michigan Court of Appeals held on April 7, 2011 that Michigan law protects the very fact of the physician-patient relationship from disclosure, absent patient consent; this means that the name, address, and contact information is protected from disclosure in litigation. The Court found that HIPAA (which would have allowed for disclosure) does not preempt state law on this matter because state law is more stringent.

Generally, HIPAA requires patient consent for the disclosure of protected health information, just as Michigan state law does. In litigation, however, HIPAA has special provisions that allow for the disclosure of protected health information in response to a subpoena or court order if the provider receives adequate assurances that notice was provided to the patient or that reasonable efforts were made to secure a QPO. However, Michigan law does not have such an exception and requires the patient’s consent to reveal private patient information. Thus, it would seem that non-solicitation provisions in employment contracts may potentially lose some of their weight unless a violation can be proven without reference to patient information. If an ex-employee violates this contractual provision, the employer does not have access to the ex-employee’s patient list to prove its allegations of violation of the employment contract under this latest Michigan Court of Appeals ruling.