Mayo Clinic Faces Multiple Lawsuits over Insider Privacy Breach

Mayo Clinic is facing multiple class action lawsuits over an insider data breach reported in October 2020. Mayo Clinic discovered a former employee had accessed the medical records of 1,600 patients without authorization and viewed information such as patient names, demographic information, dates of birth, medical record numbers, medical images, and clinical notes.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) requires all HIPAA-covered entities to implement safeguards to ensure the privacy, confidentiality, and integrity of protected health information and limits the disclosures and uses of that information when patient consent is not obtained.

Healthcare employees are permitted to access PHI in the course of their work duties, but in this case the former employee had no legitimate work reason for viewing the records. The unauthorized access is in violation of the HIPAA Rules; however, there is no private cause of action in HIPAA, so individuals affected by such a breach cannot take legal action for any HIPAA violation that results in their medical records being exposed or compromised.

Two lawsuits have recently been filed in Minnesota state courts alleging violations of the Minnesota Health Records Act (MHRA), which introduced stricter regulations covering the privacy of healthcare data in Minnesota. MHRA applies to all applies to all Minnesota-licensed physicians and the legislation does have a private cause of action, so patients whose providers violate MHRA can be sued.

The lawsuit alleges Mayo Clinic did not implement systems or procedures to ensure plaintiffs’ and similarly situated individuals’ health records would be protected and not subject to unauthorized access, and that the former employee accessed the plaintiffs’ medical records without first obtaining their consent.

Under MHRA, healthcare providers must obtain a signed and dated consent form from a patient or the patient’s legal representative authorizing the release of their medical records, unless there is a specific authorization in law, or when there is a representation from a provider holding a signed and dated consent form from the patient in question authorizing the release of their medical records.

The lawsuit also brings common law tort claims for the invasion of privacy, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and vicarious liability. A major contributory factor to the emotional distress was some of the medical images that were accessible included nude photographs of patients taken in connection with their cancer treatments. The plaintiffs seek monetary damages and other relief deemed appropriate by the courts.

Author: Steve Alder has many years of experience as a journalist, and comes from a background in market research. He is a specialist on legal and regulatory affairs, and has several years of experience writing about HIPAA. Steve holds a B.Sc. from the University of Liverpool.