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Federal Court Rules in Favor of Main Line Health in Age Discrimination Case Over HIPAA Violation

In 2016, Radnor, PA-based Main Line Health Inc., terminated an employee for violating Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Rules by accessing the personal records of a co-worker without authorization on two separate occasions.

In such cases, when employee or patient records are accessed without authorization, employees face disciplinary action which can include termination. Gloria Terrell was one such employee who was terminated for violating company policies and HIPAA Rules. Main Line Health fired Terrell for “co-worker snooping.”

Terrell filed an internal appeal over her termination and maintained she accessed the records of a co-worker in order to obtain a contact telephone number. Terrell said she needed to contact the co-worker to make sure a shift would be covered, and this constituted a legitimate business reason for the access as she was unable to find the phone list with employees’ contact numbers.

After firing Terrell, Main Line Health appointed a significantly younger person to fill the vacant position. Terrell took legal action against Main Line Health in September 2016 claiming age discrimination. In the lawsuit, Terrell claimed Main Line Health had experienced similar snooping incidents in the past and failed to apply the same rules for younger employees. Terrell claimed she knew of three younger co-workers who were not terminated following the discovery of HIPAA violations. However, Terrell could not substantiate those assertions and all three employees denied they had been involved in any improper accessing of patient records.

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Main Line Health explained appropriate training on HIPAA Rules and company policies had been provided to staff on multiple occasions and that there were established policies related to the protection of confidential employee and patient information. Those policies clearly state disciplinary action will be taken if company policies and HIPAA Rules are violated, which may include immediate discharge from employment.

Main Line Health maintained Terrell was terminated for a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason, and since the case failed to raise a triable issue, Main Line Health was entitled to a summary judgement.

Terrell’s case (Gloria Terrell v. Main Line Health, Inc., et al – Civil action No. 17-3102) went to federal court in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. U.S District Court Judge Richard Barclay Surrick recently granted Main Line Health’s summary judgement, ruling Terrell failed to establish a viable age discrimination claim.

“In short, other than her own subjective beliefs, Plaintiff has offered no evidence from which a reasonable factfinder could conclude that Defendant’s proffered reason for terminating her lacks credibility. She has provided no evidence to support a finding of discrimination,” wrote Judge Barclay Surrick. “Although one may have reservations about the wisdom of terminating an employee with Plaintiff’s experience and tenure for electronically accessing a phone number that had already been made available to co-workers in paper form, it is not for this Court to sit as a super-personnel department that re-examines an entity’s business decisions.”

Author: Steve Alder is the editor-in-chief of HIPAA Journal. Steve is responsible for editorial policy regarding the topics covered on HIPAA Journal. He is a specialist on healthcare industry legal and regulatory affairs, and has several years of experience writing about HIPAA and other related legal topics. Steve has developed a deep understanding of regulatory issues surrounding the use of information technology in the healthcare industry and has written hundreds of articles on HIPAA-related topics.