An HIV-positive woman is suing ActionAIDS, claiming the agency violated her privacy rights when a receptionist allegedly disseminated her HIV status without her permission.
ActionAIDS is the largest AIDS-service provider in Pennsylvania. It offers a wide array of services for people living with HIV/AIDS or those at risk of acquiring the disease.
The woman, identified in court papers as G.C., claims the receptionist violated the state’s HIV Confidentiality Act when allegedly making the unauthorized disclosure in 2009.
The act forbids health-care and social-service agencies from disclosing a client’s HIV status to third parties without the written consent of the client, with limited exceptions.
Those exceptions include emergency-care workers seeking the information in order to provide appropriate medical care; a person granted access to the information by court order; and insurers requesting the information to verify an insurance claim.
G.C.’s lawsuit contends the privacy violation that ActionAIDS allegedly is responsible for doesn’t fall into any of the exceptions enumerated by the act.
The act also permits HIV-positive individuals who believe their privacy has been violated to sue for monetary damages.
In June 2009, G.C. visited ActionAIDS “for the purpose of receiving assistance and social services associated with her medical condition,” her lawsuit alleges.
During the visit, G.C. recognized the receptionist as someone she knew outside of ActionAIDS, her lawsuit alleges.
The lawsuit identifies the receptionist, R.T., who couldn’t be reached for comment.
G.C. became “apprehensive” and got “a pit in her stomach,” fearing the receptionist might divulge her HIV status to others without her permission, according to the suit.
But G.C. calmed herself with the knowledge that the state’s HIV Confidentiality Act and the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act forbid such unauthorized disclosures, her lawsuit alleges.
In July 2009, an acquaintance of G.C.’s boyfriend contacted him and told him that G.C. was HIV-positive. The alleged privacy violation was traced back to the father of the receptionist, according to the lawsuit.
A complaint about the alleged privacy violation was promptly lodged with G.C.’s caseworker at ActionAIDS, the lawsuit states.
Prior to the alleged violation, only G.C.’s boyfriend and G.C.’s sister knew about her HIV status among her circle of family and friends, the suit alleges.
Due to the alleged privacy violation, G.C. became “devastated” and experienced “severe emotional distress,” with unspecified physical symptoms, her lawsuit states.
The lawsuit, which was filed February in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, seeks an unspecified amount of monetary compensation, not to exceed $50,000.
A hearing is scheduled for Oct. 20.
The lawsuit contends that ActionAIDS failed to properly train its workers and/or volunteers about privacy requirements. It specifically accuses ActionAIDS of inflicting emotional distress on G.C. and of invading her privacy.
“Plaintiff had a right to be left alone in her private affairs,” the lawsuit states.
In a reply brief, ActionAIDS denied any wrongdoing in the matter, and asked that the agency be awarded legal fees, costs and interest incurred due to the litigation. Thus far, the court papers filed by ActionAIDS have not responded in detail to specific allegations made by G.C.
Kevin R. McNulty, an attorney for ActionAIDS, declined to comment.
Matthew B. Weisberg, an attorney for G.C., issued a statement on her behalf.
“Plaintiff, choosing to remain anonymous, is aggressively pursuing not only compensation for her anguish — but a court-ordered change in the confidentiality policies and practices of [ActionAIDS]. For those suffering with unfairly stigmatized illnesses, including but not limited to HIV and mental health issues, assurances of confidentiality are of the highest duty — and in fact a legal obligation — of a healthcare provider of any kind.”
Because G.C. is suing for less than $50,000, her case will be heard by a three-member arbitration panel. If either side is dissatisfied with the ruling, it can request a jury trial, according to procedural rules governing Philadelphia’s court system.
Ronda B. Goldfein, executive director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, said that while she has no knowledge of the facts or merit of this particular case, the privacy rights of people with HIV are of the utmost importance, and shouldn’t be minimized.
“As much as we want to mainstream HIV, we need to recognize that AIDS stigma is still alive and well, and that we all need to do our part to protect sensitive medical information,” Goldfein said.
She said that, while the number of HIV-privacy complaints received by the agency has declined slightly over the years, it still gets one to two calls weekly.
Tim Cwiek can be reached at (215) 625-8501 ext. 208.