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Court of Appeals upholds dismissal of claims over medical records

Laura Brown//August 10, 2022

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Court of Appeals upholds dismissal of claims over medical records

Laura Brown//August 10, 2022

The Minnesota Court of Appeals has upheld a district court’s dismissal of claims brought by Minnesotans who did not receive their complete health records from providers within the 30-day time period set out in the Minnesota Health Records Act.

Appellants in William Findling, et al. v. Group Health Plan, Inc., et al, filed four lawsuits against Allina Health Systems, Essential Health, Fairview Health Services, HealthEast Care System, HealthPartners, and Regions Hospital. They alleged that they had requested their health records, but failed to receive full and complete copies within 30 days of their requests. This, according to appellants, affected their ability to investigate whether their medical malpractice claims were viable.

Because those cases dealt with almost identical issues, the Minnesota Supreme Court assigned one judge to hear and decide all of the matters. The district court granted appellees’ motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, as it found that neither the Health Records Act nor the Health Care Bill of Rights created a private right of action to sue for under-disclosure of health records.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals noted that, while the Minnesota Health Records Act allows for patients to bring private causes of action if providers are noncompliant with the act, not every violation created a private right of action. Specifically, the act does not create that right for cases of under-disclosure of health records—or where a patient receives some, but not all, of the medical records requested.

“[Providers] routinely and systematically failed to comply with the law by providing records within 30 days of a request” declared Jacob Siegel, of Ciresi Conlin, who represented appellants. Appellants cited Minn. Stat. § 8.31, subd. 3a of the Attorney General Statute, which permits a private party to sue over a legal violation if that lawsuit will benefit the public.

The court, reviewing a question of first impression, considered whether the Health Records Act was a law that private individuals could enforce under the private attorney general provision. Specifically, subdivision 1 provides that “[t]he attorney general shall investigate violations of the law of this state,” naming certain acts but explicitly not limiting investigation to those acts, and in the private attorney general provision permits “any person injured by a violation of the laws referred to in subdivision 1” to bring a civil action.

On one hand, the statute did not explicitly list the Health Records Act. On the other hand, the subdivision 1 includes “unlawful practices in business, commerce, or trade.” Appellants argued that withholding medical records falls under the umbrella of the aforementioned unlawful practices.

“Minnesota’s legislature created a clear right for medical patients to access their health records within 30 days and at a reasonable cost. That’s the word that the legislature used: right,” Siegel said. “There was a good reason for creating this right. Patients often urgently need their medical records, such as when making time-sensitive medical decisions.”

Without the right of private action, Siegel said, “[t]hat effectively means that if a medical provider simply decides to not respond to a request … a patient is powerless, and the court is powerless, to order the medical provider to comply. It is unreasonable to believe the legislature intended that outcome.”

Turning to legislative history of the Health Records Act, however, the court determined that there was no intent for the Health Records Act to be enforced through the private attorney general provision. Nor was the court willing to “take such a step” as to create a new remedy of private action, as the Legislature already provided a remedy. The court determined that the Attorney General Statute provision did not grant appellants a private right of action for under-disclosure of health records.

The appellants also turned to Minn. Stat. § 144.651, the Health Care Bill of Rights, which has a provision regarding access to health records. However, the statute’s enforcement is placed with the Commissioner of Health. Appellants argued that this authority was not exclusive. They cited language that they claimed explicitly and implicitly created a private right of action for under-disclosure of health records.

However, the court determined that the Bill of Rights did not create a private cause of action. “If the Legislature had wanted to create a broad private right of action in the Health Care Bill of Rights, it could have done so. It did not,” the court wrote.

Jay Lefkowitz, litigation partner at Kirkland & Ellis, represented appellees and said that a remedy existed. “If someone believes he or she has been harmed by a provider who has not provided relevant documentation—in the absence of a private right of action, but where the Legislature has said there can be disciplinary action, I would say the next step would be to go to that agency and suggest that there needs to be something done.”

The court also considered its 2017 decision in Favors v. Kneisel. Although in that case the court concluded that the Health Care Bill of Rights grants explicitly enforcement authority to the commissioner of health, the appellants turned to language in statute 1 to support their contrary position: “[a]ny guardian or conservator of a patient or resident, or in the absence of a guardian or conservator, an interested person, may seek enforcement of these rights on behalf of a patient or resident.” Appellants argued that they qualified as “interested persons”, but the court disagreed, understanding the statute to apply to those subject to guardianship or conservatorship.

On Aug. 8, the court affirmed the lower court’s ruling, finding that appellants failed to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.

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