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Burger v. Blair Medical Associates

February 20, 2009

DIANA BURGER
v.
BLAIR MEDICAL ASSOCIATES, INC. AND NATASHA KARANJIA, D.O.
APPEAL OF: BLAIR MEDICAL ASSOCIATES, INC.



Appeal from the Order of the Superior Court entered June 6, 2007 at No. 1070 WDA 2006 affirming the Judgment of the Court of Common Pleas of Blair County entered May 10, 2006 at No. 2001 GN 5931.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mr. Justice Saylor

CASTILLE, C.J., SAYLOR, EAKIN, BAER, TODD, McCAFFERY, GREENSPAN, JJ.

ARGUED: September 8, 2008

OPINION

We allowed appeal to consider the statute of limitations governing a claim for breach of physician-patient confidentiality.

Appellee Diana Burger received medical treatment from a physician employed by Appellant Blair Medical Associates, Inc. ("BMA") from 1996 until 2001. In October 1999, Appellee sustained a work-related injury. On October 28, 1999, she signed a medical authorization, permitting her employer's worker's compensation consultant to obtain medical records for the purpose of calculating the medical expenses occasioned by the work-related injury. In addition to releasing the record of treatment for Appellee's injury, however, BMA disclosed her unrelated use of marijuana and pain medication without a prescription. As a result of this disclosure, Appellee's employer terminated her employment on November 6, 1999. Appellee commenced an action against, inter alia, BMA on October 26, 2001, alleging that BMA breached physician-patient confidentiality by disclosing her illegal drug use.

In its responsive pleadings, BMA asserted that Appellee's breach-of-confidentiality claim was, in essence, an action for invasion of privacy, which was barred by the one year statute of limitations governing such actions. See 42 Pa.C.S. §5523(1) (providing that actions for "libel, slander or invasion of privacy" must be commenced within one year). The trial court rejected this contention, reasoning that a breach of physician-patient confidentiality is a recognized cause of action in its own right, which is governed by a two-year statute of limitations. See 42 Pa.C.S. §5524(7).*fn1 The matter proceeded to trial, at which the jury awarded Appellee $60,052.37.

BMA moved for post-trial relief, claiming that the trial court had erred in distinguishing between claims for invasion of privacy and breach of physician-patient confidentiality in selecting the appropriate statute of limitations. The trial court denied BMA's motion, explaining that all of the elements of a breach of physician-patient confidentiality were present in this case with regard to the complained-of disclosures. See, e.g., Haddad v. Gopal, 787 A.2d 975, 981 (Pa. Super. 2001) (recognizing a cause of action for breach of physician-patient confidentiality in situations where a physician discloses privileged treatment information that is unrelated to any judicial proceedings). In particular, the court observed that, without Appellee's express or implied consent, BMA divulged confidential patient information obtained from Appellee, which would tend to damage Appellee's character and was not related to the stated purpose of the medical authorization: to review medical expenses resulting from Appellee's work-related injury.

The Superior Court affirmed, holding that the torts of invasion of privacy and breach of physician-patient confidentiality are distinct, such that the former is expressly governed by the one-year statute of limitations and the latter falls within the catch-all two-year limitations period. See Burger v. Blair Med. Assocs., Inc., 928 A.2d 246, 251 (Pa. Super. 2007). In arriving at this conclusion, the Superior Court rejected BMA's attempt to rely on its prior decision in Coulter v. Rosenblum, 452 Pa. Super. 619, 682 A.2d 838 (1996), as well as this Court's decision in Pro Golf Manufacturing, Inc. v. Tribune Review Newspaper Co., 570 Pa. 242, 809 A.2d 243 (2002). As for Coulter, the intermediate appellate court stated that, although the decision indicated that a claim based on breach of confidentiality was governed by the one-year statue of limitations, that language was "molded by the manner in which the controversy was brought before" the court. See Burger, 928 A.2d at 248. More specifically, the court emphasized that the plaintiff in Coulter had not challenged the dismissal of her breach-of-confidentiality claims, and thus, the only claim remaining before the court was one involving invasion of privacy, to which the one-year statute of limitations facially applied. See Burger, 928 A.2d at 248 (citing Coulter, 452 Pa. Super. at 621, 682 A.2d at 838-39).*fn2 As to Pro Golf, the Superior Court explained that the only question in that case involved the nature of a claim sounding in commercial disparagement, which this Court characterized as the substantive equivalent of a slander claim, expressly governed by the one-year limitation period provided by Section 5523(1). See Burger, 928 A.2d at 248 (citing Pro Golf, 570 Pa. at 247, 809 A.2d at 246).

The Superior Court proceeded to reason that it had previously recognized a cause of action for breach of physician-patient confidentiality, see Grimminger v. Maitra, 887 A.2d 276, 280 (Pa. Super. 2005); Haddad, 787 A.2d at 980, and concluded that such a claim is different from an action for invasion of privacy. In this regard, the court referenced the Second Restatement of Torts, which enumerates four theories for invasion of privacy -- unreasonable intrusion upon the seclusion of another, see RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF TORTS §652B, appropriation of the other's name or likeness, see id., §652C, unreasonable publicity given to another's private life, see id., §652D, and publicity that unreasonably places the other in a false light before the public, see id., §652E -- and noted its view that each is distinct from a claim for breach of physician-patient confidentiality. See Burger, 928 A.2d at 250-51 (discussing substantive differences between physician-patient confidentiality breaches and each of the four Restatement theories for invasion of privacy). Thus, the Superior Court held that, because a breach of physician-patient confidentiality gives rise to a cause of action that cannot be categorized as an invasion of privacy, it was governed, not by the one-year statute of limitations expressly provided for invasion-of-privacy claims, but by the two-year limitations period of Section 5524(7).

On discretionary appeal before this Court, BMA does not challenge the Superior Court's conclusion that a breach of physician-patient confidentiality gives rise to a distinct cause of action. Rather, BMA appears to suggest that, whether or not an independent cause of action exists, a breach-of-confidentiality claim should be placed under the umbrella of privacy claims.*fn3 In some passages of its brief, BMA appears to be arguing that, where one cause of action is expressly subject to a particular limitations period and another is not, if there are any similarities between the two causes, the latter is encompassed by the specific limitations period. In this respect, BMA suggests that default limitations provisions should be regarded with disfavor.

BMA relies heavily on Pro Golf, in which this Court reasoned that the gravamen of a claim, rather than its label, controls the statute of limitations, see Pro Golf, 570 Pa. at 247, 809 A.2d at 246, and Coulter, where the Superior Court in effect categorized breach of confidentiality with invasion of privacy. See Coulter, 452 Pa. Super. at 625, 682 A.2d at 840. BMA also references Evans v. Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc., 411 Pa. Super. 244, 601 A.2d. 330 (1991), in which the Superior Court held that a claim for tortious interference with contract that was based on a defamatory newspaper publication was barred by the one-year limitations period of Section 5523(1). See id. at 250, 601 A.2d at 334.

Supplemental to its more general arguments, BMA also attempts to place Appellee's claim squarely within the Restatement definition of invasion of privacy. In this regard, BMA maintains that its disclosure was sufficient to constitute "publicity" under Section 652D of the Restatement (publicity given to private life). BMA observes that an action under Section 652D does not require intentional conduct, see RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF TORTS §652D, and highlights that the Restatement was not intended to be the final and complete codification of the law on invasion of privacy. See id., cmt. a. ("It remains to be seen whether a disclosure not equivalent to the giving of publicity will be actionable when the obtaining of the information was not tortious in character."). BMA relies upon McGuire v. Shubert, 722 A.2d 1087 (Pa. Super. 1998), in which the Superior Court held that a bank employee's disclosure of a depositor's financial information to an attorney for the depositor's adversary in an equity case was actionable as an invasion of privacy. See id. at 1092. Further, BMA argues that there could be no legislative purpose in making the statute of limitations for the disclosure of private information dependent upon the number of persons to whom it is disclosed.

Appellee agrees with BMA that Section 652D is closest of all options under the Restatement, since "intrusion upon seclusion" is not implicated where, as here, the defendant had legitimately obtained the information. See generally Harris by Harris v. Easton Publ'g Co., 335 Pa. Super. 141, 152, 483 A.2d 1377, 1383 (1984). However, Appellee argues that BMA's reliance upon McGuire to support the contention that the disclosure constituted sufficient "publicity" is misplaced, because that case was analyzed under the ...


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