On February 23, 2018 the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals released its opinion inEx Parte Alabama Gas Corporation denying Alagasco’s Petition for Writ of Mandamus wherein it sought relief from a particularly restrictive HIPAA Order entered by the trial court. It is quite a common occurrence for judges in workers’ compensation cases to enter a "HIPAA Order". The purpose of such an order is to ensure compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), while still allowing parties to obtain protected health information relevant to the case. However, in the underlying case of Robert Smitherman v Alabama Gas Corporation, the trial court entered a HIPAA order that was a departure from the "standard" order typically entered. That order provided, among other things, that the parties and their attorneys were only allowed to obtain protected health information (namely medical records and bills) after issuing a subpoena to obtain them. It also limited the parties’ ability to obtain records pertaining to "personal injury", and prohibited any medical care provider from disclosing any protected health information other than that which directly pertained to the alleged work-related injury. The order further expressly prohibited Alagasco’s attorneys from engaging in anyex parte discussions, conferences, interviews, and/or telephonic or email communications with any of the plaintiff’s healthcare providers without first providing notice to the plaintiff’s attorney.
Alagasco filed a Motion to Amend the HIPAA order, asserting that it prohibited certain methods of discovery that are allowed in workers’ compensation cases. The trial court set Alagasco’s Motion to Amend for hearing on December 20, 2017. However, two days prior to that, Alagasco filed a Petition for Writ of Mandamus with the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals, and also filed a Motion to Stay proceedings at the trial court level, pending the Court of Appeals’ resolution of its mandamus petition. At the December 20, 2017 hearing, the trial court denied Alagasco’s Motion to Stay. However, the judge stated "I think the HIPAA Order, to some degree, is due to be amended...there may be some revision that I acknowledge needs to be made".
Alagasco argued to the Court of Appeals that the HIPAA Order prohibits any meaningful opportunity on the part of Alagasco to make timely determinations of reasonableness, necessity, and relatedness of recommended medical treatment. It also argued that the order precludes any opportunity to ensure that the plaintiff is complaint with reasonable requests to submit to medical treatment as provided in the Act. However, the Court of Appeals denied Alagasco’s petition without ruling on the merits of Alagasco’s arguments. The Court of Appeals held that Alagasco failed to demonstrate that the trial court clearly exceeded its discretion, or that Alagasco lacked another adequate remedy by appeal. Judge Terry Moore wrote a concurring opinion, stating that while he agreed that the Petition for Writ of Mandamus was due to be denied, it was primarily because the trial court had not explicitly refused to act on Alagasco’s Motion to Amend the HIPAA Order.
MY TWO CENTS
Mandamus is an "extraordinary remedy", and is only available when the trial court clearly exceeds its discretion or refuses to act when it is required to do so, and there is no other remedy available. In this case, Alagasco’s Petition for Writ may have been a little premature, since the trial judge indicated that he was considering amending the order. While the Court of Appeals declined to decide the issue on the merits, Alabama is clear how the Courtshould have decided it if the Petition for Writ had been proper. The trial court has broad, but not unfettered, discretion in discovery matters. § 25-5-81(f) of the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act provides that the same discovery rules apply to workers’ compensation cases as apply to other civil cases, with a few minor limitations aimed at reducing costs. The Supreme Court has previously held that a defendant has a right to contact, and even haveex parte communications with, a plaintiff’s treating physicians. See, Romine v. Medicenters of America, Inc.,476 So. 2d 51 (Ala. 1985). In Romine, the Court held that "No party to litigation has anything resembling a proprietary right to any witness's evidence...Unless impeded by privilege, an adversary may inquire, in advance of trial, by any lawful manner to learn what any witness knows if other appropriate conditions the witness alone may impose are satisfied...". Id. The Supreme Court has also held that a case manager has the right to contact a medical provider by telephone to obtain reasonably necessary information, allowing the employer to fulfill its statutory obligation to provide and oversee the employee’s medical care.Ex Parte Smitherman Bros. Trucking Inc., 751 So. 2d 1232 (Ala. 1999).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
This article was written by Charley M. Drummond, Esq. of Fish Nelson & Holden, LLC. Fish Nelson & Holden is a law firm located in Birmingham, Alabama dedicated to representing employers, self-insured employers, and insurance carriers in workers’ compensation cases and related liability matters. Drummond and his firm are members of The National Workers’ Compensation Defense Network (NWCDN). The NWCDN is a national and Canadian network of reputable law firms organized to provide employers and insurers access to the highest quality representation in workers’ compensation and related employer liability fields. If you have questions about this article or Alabama workers’ compensation issues in general, please feel free to contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or (205) 332-3414.
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