Dental patient can sue over disclosed records

By staff writers

June 21, 2011 -- A Los Angeles dental patient can sue a debt collector who gave his dental records to credit reporting agencies following a bill dispute with a dentist after the California Supreme Court upheld a state law forbidding doctors to disclose patient information.

The case stems from a dispute that began in 2000 between Robert Brown, a Los Angeles lawyer, and Rolf Reinholds, DDS, a Glendale, CA, dentist who treated Brown and his two children. Brown claimed that Dr. Reinholds billed him $600 for a dental crown that he never received and refused to pay for.

Dr. Reinholds subsequently turned the matter over to a bill collector and a credit agency, along with a copy of Brown's dental charts and the charts of his two minor children.

Debt collector Stewart Martensen in turn disclosed the Browns' confidential medical information to the consumer reporting agencies Experian, Equifax, and Trans Union. He also sent them the family's Social Security numbers, personal information, and complete dental histories to the agencies.

After two years of unsuccessful demands that Martensen stop the disclosures, Brown sued Martensen, alleging violations of the California Confidentiality Act, which forbids the unauthorized dissemination of medical information.

A Los Angeles trial court said Brown's claims were too vague and dismissed them. The Court of Appeal concurred, ruling that Brown's claims were pre-empted by the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).

But on June 16 the California Supreme Court overturned both lower court rulings, finding that the FCRA is designed to protect against harmful disclosure of inaccurate information, while the California Confidentiality Act forbids unauthorized release of medical information.

"Congress never intended ... to pre-empt state laws regulating medical privacy and thereby to relieve entities otherwise obligated to maintain confidentiality of the duty to do so when reporting credit information," the ruling stated.

Dr. Reinholds also made further unauthorized disclosures to Equifax, and Brown never authorized Dr. Reinholds or Mortensen to disclose this information to any third party, including the three consumer reporting agencies, the high court ruled.

Brown's lawsuit against Martensen will now go back to the trial court.

Copyright © 2011

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