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Jury Must Decide Whether Psychiatrist was Sacked for a HIPAA Violation

Boston-based Steward Healthcare System terminated a psychiatrist for violating HIPAA Rules but must now prove to a jury that was the case. The psychiatrist claims he was fired in retaliation over taking extended disability leave, not for a HIPAA violation.

Dr. Alexander Lipin contracted pneumonia and requested extended disability leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Extended leave was granted by Steward Healthcare System and Lipin was due to return to work on March 2, 2016. However, Lipin was fired on February 23 while still on disability leave over a HIPAA violation, which his attorney, Kavita M. Goyal, claims was used as an excuse for the termination.

Steward Healthcare System alleged Lipin had violated HIPAA Rules by providing patients’ protected health information to law enforcement. According to Steward Medical Group President, George Clairmont, the decision had been taken to fire Lipin over the HIPAA violation before he took leave. Clairmont also stated Lipin was fired after it was discovered he was working for Anna Jaques Hospital while on leave.

Lipin sued Steward Medical Group inc., Steward Healthcare System, and Holy Family Hospital over his dismissal. The case was removed to federal court in November 2016, and Steward Healthcare filed a motion for a summary judgement on the case.

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Massachusetts federal judge, Leo. T. Sorokin, ruled that the case should proceed to trial to establish the facts surrounding the dismissal. Steward Healthcare will now be required to convince a jury that the decision to fire the psychiatrist was based on the HIPAA violation and not the discovery that Lipin was working for another hospital while on disability leave.

Clairmont maintains the decision to fire Lipin was made before he went on leave on January 26. The HIPAA violation was discovered on January 16 and the decision was taken to fire Lipin. Lipin was not fired immediately as advice was sought from the company’s legal department over the nature of the termination – whether it should be for cause, effective immediately, or without cause, in which case 90 days’ notice or pay in lieu of notice would be required.

Lipin took leave and notified Steward Healthcare on February 5 that he would remain on leave until February 17, and on February 12 told Steward Healthcare that he would need to remain on leave until February 23. On February 20, leave was extended until March 2.

On February 13, Steward Healthcare learned that Lipin was continuing to work for Anna Jaques Hospital in the mornings while on leave, and Lipin was terminated ten days later on February 23.

While Judge Sorokin explained that no evidence exists in the record that directly contradicts Clairmont’s account, “A factfinder could reasonably choose to disregard Clairmont’s testimony in light of the lack of any action taken by Steward to arrange coverage for Lipin’s patients or to terminate Lipin’s employment before February 13, especially when this inaction is contrasted with Steward’s concerted steps to fire Lipin after February 13,” wrote Judge Sorokin, “These circumstances could support a reasonable inference that Steward decided to fire Lipin only after Clairmont learned of Lipin’s work at Anna Jaques.”

An initial pre-trail conference has been scheduled for May 30, 2018.

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.