Postal workers won an important legal victory March 30, when a district court judge upheld the right of the APWU and the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) to pursue a lawsuit against the USPS and the USPS Office of the Inspector General (OIG) for “widespread and systematic intrusions” into the medical records of their members.
Judge Denny Chin, of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, rejected a motion by the Postal Service and OIG to dismiss the unions’ suit.
The APWU-NALC complaint, filed Jan. 17, 2008, asserts that, beginning in 2006, the OIG began surreptitiously seeking and obtaining the medical records of postal workers directly from doctors and hospitals that had provided medical services to postal employees. The suit alleges that the OIG has instructed medical providers that they must submit records to the OIG and that they should refrain from notifying affected employees that the records have been requested.
The OIG defends the practice — which continues — claiming it has a right to review the medical records as part of its oversight and investigatory activities.
The unions’ lawsuit asserts that the practices:
- Constitute an unlawful invasion of privacy;
- Extend beyond the authority of the OIG;
- Violate postal workers’ constitutionally protected right to privacy, and
- Amount to unreasonable searches and seizures.
The complaint contends that by intruding into the private medical records of postal employees, the USPS and OIG have violated the Privacy Act, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), and the Fourth Amendment.
The U.S. Attorney, acting on behalf of the Postal Service and OIG, moved to dismiss the complaint on June 6, 2008, arguing that the unions lacked “standing” to bring the lawsuit. The case wasn’t suitable for a “representative” action, the USPS and OIG asserted, because “resolution of the claim requires individualized proof” of violations of the law. They also contended that the unions’ lawsuit “fails to adequately allege how the policy violates the HIPAA Privacy Regulations and the Privacy Act,” and suggested there was “no reasonable expectation of privacy” because the records were not in the possession of the employees.
Judge Chin rejected the USPS and OIG arguments. “Although a person’s ‘privacy right in his medical records is neither fundamental nor absolute,’…. USPS employees have — at a minimum — standing to bring suit based on a reasonable expectation of privacy in their medical records,” he wrote.
The judge compared the expectation of privacy for medical records held by healthcare providers with the protection of documents people leave with their lawyers. “This is because the client has a subjective expectation that such papers will be kept private and such expectation is one society recognizes as reasonable.”
Chin also rejected the USPS and OIG argument that the unions had no standing, saying the unions’ contentions do not require “individualized proof.”
APWU President William Burrus praised the judge’s decision. “I am pleased that the APWU — together with the NALC — will be able to continue our efforts to protect the privacy of our members. This is only the first round of what may be a long fight, but Judge Chin’s decision is very encouraging.
“I am outraged that the OIG would use the tactics of a police state to investigate workers compensation or sick-leave cases, Burrus said. “The OIG has no legitimate business investigating routine personnel matters.”