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Atkins v. Mabus

United States District Court, S.D. California

June 13, 2014

GARY ATKINS, Plaintiff,


GONZALO P. CURIEL, District Judge.

This case arises out of the government's alleged improper disclosure of and failure to adequately safeguard Plaintiff Gary Atkins' sensitive medical records while he was a patient and employee at the Naval Medical Center San Diego. Before the Court is Defendant Raymond E. Mabus' Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiff's action brought pursuant to the Privacy Act of 1974, 5 U.S.C. § 552a. (Dkt. No. 22.) The Parties have fully briefed the motion. (Dkt. Nos. 31, 32.) The Court held a hearing on the motion on June 6, 2014. Kenneth Baisch, Esq. appeared on behalf of Plaintiff; Assistant United States Attorney Katherine Parker, Esq. appeared on behalf of Defendant. Based on a review of the Parties' briefs, supporting evidence, oral arguments, and the applicable law, the Court GRANTS Defendant Raymond E. Mabus' Motion for Summary Judgment. (Dkt. No. 22.)


Plaintiff Gary Atkins was diagnosed in 1994 with a life-threatening illness. (Dkt. No. 31-1 ¶ 3.) Plaintiff describes his medical condition as "uniquely sensitive and personal." (Dkt. No. 31 at 1.) From 2005 through 2011, Plaintiff was employed at the Naval Medical Center San Diego ("NMCSD, " otherwise known as the "Balboa Naval Hospital") as the Division Officer for Professional Development. (Id. at ¶ 2; Dkt. No. 22-5 at 9-11.) Upon joining the NMCSD staff in 2005, Plaintiff began seeking regular treatment for his illness at NMCSD. (Dkt. No. 31-1 ¶ 4.)

In 2008, Plaintiff began to suspect that other NMCSD employees were aware of his medical diagnosis. (Dkt. No. 22-5 at 22.) On October 21, 2008, Plaintiff requested an audit of all the individuals who had accessed his medical records on the NMCSD electronic record-keeping program, AHLTA. (Dkt. No. 22-4, Ex. B at 3.) The audit did not turn up any individuals Plaintiff suspected of improperly accessing his medical records. (Dkt. No. 31-2, Ex. 3.)

In 2009, [1] Plaintiff learned from Dr. Mary Bavaro, a doctor at NMCSD, that a "problems list" populated with patients' "key medical diagnoses" could be accessed by hospital employees without need for the employees to access the respective patients' full hospital record. (Dkt. No. 22-5, Ex. A at 51; Dkt. No. 31-1 ¶ 5.) Plaintiff declares that two additional employees of NMCSD later "confirmed what had been conveyed by Dr. Bavaro." (Dkt. No. 31-1 ¶ 6) (referring to NMCSD Social Worker Lisa Hess and Psychologist or Psychiatrist Joy Martin).

In 2010, Plaintiff's supervisor at NMCSD was named "Captain Pratt"; at that same time, NMCSD also employed Lieutenant Commander Michael Simons ("Lt. Commander Simons"). (Id. ¶ 10.) Lt. Commander Simons would occasionally supervise Plaintiff in place of Captain Pratt. (Id.) On June 24, 2010, while in conversation with Lt. Commander Simons regarding NMCSD acupuncture services, Lt. Commander Simons commented that acupuncture could "help a person with the need for a certain type of test used for the illness [Plaintiff] suffer[s] from." (Id.) Plaintiff immediately reported this incident to the NMCSD Privacy Officer. (Id.)

Later on June 24, 2010, Captain Pratt and Lt. Commander Simons entered Plaintiff's office to discuss Plaintiff's conversation with the Privacy Officer. Plaintiff declares that Captain Pratt made comments he interpreted as "tacit admission that [Captain Pratt] and Simons had improperly accessed [Plaintiff's private medical data]." (Id. ¶ 12.)

In 2011, Plaintiff exchanged emails with AHLTA Sustainment Trainer Noel Molinos. (Dkt. No. 31-2, Ex. 2.) In the course of this email exchange, Ms. Molinos confirmed that "it would be accurate that if an employee really wanted to risk employment and jail time they could snoop in the system and possibly get away with no record of it." (Id.) Following this confirmation, Plaintiff left the NMCSD for a position with the Veterans Administration. (Dkt. No. 31-1 ¶ 14.) Plaintiff declares that he has had to change healthcare providers due to his lack of confidence in the NMCSD AHLTA system, and has had to pay increased insurance premiums as a result. (Id. ¶ 15.)

On June 8, 2012, Plaintiff filed the present action against Defendant Raymond E. Mabus, alleging violations of the Privacy Act of 1974, 5 U.S.C. § 552a. (Dkt. No. 1.) On March 1, 2013, Plaintiff filed a First Amended Complaint, the current operative complaint. (Dkt. No. 10.) Plaintiff's First Amended Complaint seeks compensatory damages, interest, and attorney's fees for violation of the Privacy Act of 1974 (the "Privacy Act") under two theories: (1) the government's "inadequate safeguards" failed to protect Plaintiff's confidential medical diagnosis; and (2) the government's "improper disclosure" of Plaintiff's confidential medical information violated the Act. (Id.) Defendant now seeks summary judgment on Plaintiff's claims of both inadequate safeguards and improper disclosure. (Dkt. No. 22.)


I. Legal Standard on Summary Judgment Motion

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 empowers the Court to enter summary judgment on factually unsupported claims or defenses, and thereby "secure the just, speedy and inexpensive determination of every action." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett , 477 U.S. 317, 325, 327 (1986). Summary judgment is appropriate if the "pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). A fact is material when it affects the outcome of the case. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. , 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).

The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of any genuine issues of material fact. Celotex Corp. , 477 U.S. at 323. The moving party can satisfy this burden by demonstrating that the nonmoving party failed to make a showing sufficient to establish an element of his or her claim on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. Id . at 322-23. If the moving party fails to bear the initial burden, summary judgment must be denied and the court need not consider the nonmoving party's evidence. Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co. , 398 U.S. 144, 159-60 (1970).

Once the moving party has satisfied this burden, the nonmoving party cannot rest on the mere allegations or denials of his pleading, but must "go beyond the pleadings and by her own affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file' designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Celotex , 477 U.S. at 324. If the non-moving party fails to make a sufficient showing of an element of its case, the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Id . at 325. "Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no genuine issue for trial.'" Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp. , 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). In making this determination, the court must "view[] the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party." Fontana v. Haskin , 262 ...

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