Georgia Court of Appeals Affirms Judgment Obtained by WWHGD Attorneys on Issue of First Impression
On July 13, 2015, the Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court summary judgment obtained by WWHGD attorneys Carol P. Michel and Emily H. Quan on an issue of first impression with the potential to forever change the landscape of Georgia's health care industry, as well as statewide medical debt collection practices.
The case, styled R.J.S. and J.A.J. v. Gwinnett Hospital System, Inc., et al., arose out of a collection suit filed against Plaintiff R.J.S. by Gwinnett Hospital System, Inc. to recover payment for medical services it rendered to her minor daughter, Plaintiff J.A.J. Plaintiffs sued the hospital, a hospital employee who signed an affidavit in support of the collection action, and the attorney and law firm that pursued the collection action on the hospital’s behalf. The collection action was decided in favor of the hospital. In the subsequent lawsuit, Plaintiffs asserted various causes of action, each stemming from the inclusion, as part of the collection action, of hospital invoices Plaintiffs contended contained "protected health information" as defined by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Plaintiffs asserted claims for negligence, negligent supervision, outrageous conduct, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, breach of confidentiality, invasion of privacy, and punitive damages. The lawsuit brought to light several complicated and unprecedented issues under federal and state law, which, if decided adversely to the hospital, would jeopardize the hospital’s ability to collect on delinquent accounts.
Gwinnett Hospital System, Inc. moved for dismissal of Plaintiffs' claims, citing HIPAA regulations, Georgia's absolute privilege for pleadings and exhibits thereto, and crucial public policy interests. With regard to the last point, WWHGD emphasized to the trial court that permitting Plaintiffs’ claims to proceed would impede health care providers' access to justice through the court system, enable and encourage nonpayment of medical bills, and erode the effectiveness of statewide debt-collection practices. Plaintiffs responded with citations to favorable case law from a growing number of jurisdictions in the United States. Ultimately, however, WWHGD’s arguments on behalf of Gwinnett Hospital System, Inc. carried the day, and the trial court dismissed Plaintiffs' claims on federal and state law grounds on July 25, 2014. The trial court based its decision not only on the application of Georgia's absolute privilege for pleadings and exhibits thereto, but also on HIPAA regulations expressly permitting health care providers to use or disclose documentation containing “protected health information” in the manner complained of by Plaintiffs.
Plaintiffs immediately appealed to the Georgia Court of Appeals, reasserting the arguments they made to the trial court. WWHGD handled the appeal, reasserting its federal law, state law, and public policy arguments on behalf of Gwinnett Hospital System, Inc. The Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of the trial court adopting the opinion of the trial court as its own. Thereafter, Plaintiffs filed a Petition for Certiorari in the Georgia Supreme Court requesting that court to review the case to which WWHGD filed an opposition on behalf of its clients. The Georgia Supreme Court denied Plaintiffs' petition on October 20, 2015.