Case Result: Mental Health Counselor Avoids Suspension, Probation for Violating HIPAA, Patient Confidentiality

Professional:
Licensed Mental Health Counselor

Primary issue:
Client is a licensed mental health counselor. One of her patients requested she write a letter allowing the patient to have an emotional support animal to help with her anxiety. The letter was to be provided to the patient’s landlord, who had refused to allow the patient to have an animal in the apartment. After only one meeting, client agreed to write the letter, which stated that the patient is required to have an emotional support animal, and that the ADA prohibits the landlord from refusing to allow for one.

Shortly after writing the letter to the landlord, client received an email from someone who claimed that, by drafting this letter, client committed malpractice. This woman signed herself as a therapist. A few weeks later, the woman emailed client again and apologized for her harsh email, stating that she was being protective over “her friend,” the landlord. Client had been under the impression that this woman was a therapist and that the two of them had the patient in common. For this reason, client proceeded to engage in a series of emails discussing the patient’s mental health condition and even disparaging the patient. At one point, the landlord also became involved in the correspondence, and it appeared that all three had multiple phone conversations regarding the patient. Once the patient discovered this, she became upset and reported client to the Florida Department of Health (DOH) on grounds of violating HIPAA and patient confidentiality rights.

Argument:
Client had been under the impression that she had permission to speak to the other woman, because she originally thought the other woman was the patient’s therapist. In addition, client claimed that the information she had disclosed had already been disclosed by the patient herself to the landlord.

Client was unaware that, under state and federal law, all healthcare providers must obtain a proper release of information before discussing a patient’s mental health disorder with anyone else, including another provider. Also, a healthcare provider must always obtain proper release of information before disclosing protected health information and super-protected information, such as mental health disorder issues, to any third-party — even if the patient had already disclosed the same information to third parties.

Result:
Because no material facts and dispute existed as to whether client violated confidentiality, the only option was to try to negotiate a settlement with the DOH. Under the agreement, client was reprimanded, will pay a fine within a longer period that was allotted originally, and is responsible for continuing education classes. No suspension or probation was ordered.

Areas of Law:
HIPAA Compliance
DOH & LARA Investigations & Complaints

Disclaimer:
This information is a sample of our past results. Prospective clients may not obtain the same or similar results. Every case is different and each case must be evaluated and handled on its own merits. The circumstances of your case may differ from the results provided. The information provided has not been reviewed or approved by the State Bar.

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