HIV Disclosure Suit Survives First Challenge

August 19, 2003 ( - A federal judge has accepted the recommendation of a US Magistrate to turn aside requests from the US Social Security Administration (SSA) to throw out a lawsuit alleging an agency employee improperly disclosed the plaintiff was HIV positive.

>In the suit, which names the SSA and an agency liaison officer as defendants, the plaintiff, who also had cancer, alleged that the liaison officer improperly mentioned the man’s HIV status in front of one of the plaintiff’s friends, according to a CCH report. The Social Security liaison officer at the Maine Medical Center interviewed patients potentially eligible for the agency’s benefits.

>The suit asks for damages for privacy violations and negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Specifically, the man alleged that the defendant’s disclosure of his HIV status caused him to suffer significant and profound damage, such as isolation, depression, anxiety, embarrassment, and had an adverse impact on his relationships with family and friends.

>According to the CCH report, the plaintiff was admitted to Maine Medical Center in Portland with non-Hodgkins lymphoma and advanced AIDS. In September 2000, a hospital social worker notified the SSA liaison officer that the man was interested in applying for SSA disability benefits.

>During the liaison officer’s visit to the plaintiff’s room, a friend of the plaintiff unexpectedly entered. As the liaison officer left, the suit alleged, she said “When your HIV status turns to full-blown AIDS, you need to notify the office.” According to the suit, the friend soon told at least two others that the man had AIDS.

The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the claim, arguing that the man failed to allege any extreme and outrageous conduct or any intentional or reckless conduct on the part of the defendants. They also argued that the plaintiff failed to allege severe emotional distress.