Age Discrimination Case Over HIPAA Violation: Federal Court Rules in Favor of Main Line Health

In 2016, Radnor, PA-based Main Line Health Inc., fired a member of staff for breaching Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Rules by viewing the personal records of a co-worker without authorization on two different occasions.

In such instances, when staff or patient records are accessed without official permission, employees face disciplinary action which can include firing. Gloria Terrell was one such staff member who was terminated for breaching company policies and HIPAA Rules. Main Line Health sacked Terrell for “co-worker snooping.”

Terrell submitted an internal appeal over her firing and maintained she accessed the records of a co-worker in order to locate a contact telephone number. Terrell said she had to contact the co-worker to make sure a work shift would be covered, and this constituted a legitimate business reason for the access as she could not find the phone list with employees’ contact numbers.

After sacking Terrell, Main Line Health hired a significantly younger person to fill the vacant role. Terrell began legal action against Main Line Health in September 2016 claiming age discrimination. In the legal action, Terrell alleged Main Line Health had experienced similar snooping incidents in the past and failed to apply the same sanctions for younger member of staff. Terrell claimed she was aware of three younger co-workers who were not fired after the discovery of HIPAA violations. However, Terrell could not prove those assertions and all three staff members denied they had been involved in any improper accessing of patient records.

Main Line Health said that appropriate training on HIPAA Rules and company policies had been given to staff on multiple occasions and that there were policies in place in relation to the protection of confidential employee and patient information. Those policies clearly state disciplinary action will be applied if company policies and HIPAA Rules are breached, which may include immediate discharge from employment.

Main Line Health argued Terrell was terminated for a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason, and since the case did not raise a triable issue, Main Line Health was entitled to a summary judgement.

Terrell’s case (Gloria Terrell v. Main Line Health, Inc., et al – Civil action No. 17-3102) was put forward to federal court in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. U.S District Court Judge Richard Barclay Surrick recently granted Main Line Health’s summary judgement, ruling Terrell did not establish a viable age discrimination claim.

Judge Barclay Surric wrote “In short, other than her own subjective beliefs, Plaintiff has offered no evidence from which a reasonable factfinder could conclude that Defendant’s proffered reason for terminating her lacks credibility. She has provided no evidence to support a finding of discrimination. Although one may have reservations about the wisdom of terminating an employee with Plaintiff’s experience and tenure for electronically accessing a phone number that had already been made available to co-workers in paper form, it is not for this Court to sit as a super-personnel department that re-examines an entity’s business decisions.”