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Prosecutor’s press conference did not violate patient’s rights

Where a commonwealth’s attorney disclosed the fact that a psychiatric patient had psychological issues and had not taken his medication on the day he was shot by a hospital security guard, the patient’s guardian was unable to state a claim for invasion of privacy under either federal or state law.

Background

Jonathan James Brewster Warner, an incapacitated adult, was shot by a security guard at Lynchburg General Hospital after he had come to the hospital for psychiatric treatment. The shooting and the entire altercation that preceded it were captured on video, although there is no corresponding audio. The Commonwealth’s Attorney for the City of Lynchburg, Michael R. Doucette, investigated the shooting, working in conjunction with the Lynchburg Police Department. During the course of that investigation, Doucette obtained Jonathan Warner’s health records.

On June 1, 2016, Doucette conducted a press conference and issued a press release to discuss the results of his investigation and to explain his decision not to charge anyone criminally. During the conference and in the text of the press release, Doucette allegedly revealed and redisclosed sensitive content from Jonathan Warner’s health records, discussing with specificity information taken from Jonathan Warner’s medical records, including Warner’s psychiatric conditions, history, treatment, and medication.

Jonathan Warner’s guardian, Ruth Warner, then brought this complaint alleging claims for invasion of privacy under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law. Doucette now moves to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a cause of action upon which relief can be granted.

Analysis

Fourth Circuit precedent clearly establishes that there is no general constitutional right to privacy; rather, the ‘right to privacy’ has been limited to matters of reproduction, contraception, abortion, and marriage. None of these matters is implicated by the facts of this case.

Further, while the Fourth Circuit has recognized that personal, private information in which an individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy is protected by one’s constitutional right to privacy, this right applies only to narrow categories of information. A number of lower courts within the Fourth Circuit have declined to recognize a constitutional right to privacy in one’s personal medical information. Consistent with that authority, the court does not believe that Jonathan Warner has a constitutionally protected privacy interest in the medical information disclosed by Doucette.

In addition, while Ruth Warner identifies the Fourth and 14th Amendments as the bases for her claim, other than identifying the Amendments, she does not even attempt to explain how the allegations state a claim for a violation of Jonathan Warner’s Fourth or 14th Amendment rights.

As an initial matter, the allegations here simply do not implicate the Fourth Amendment. There is no allegation that Doucette obtained Jonathan Warner’s medical records through an unreasonable search or seizure, and Ruth Warner does not argue that Doucette’s redisclosure of those records constituted a search or seizure, nor does she explain how it could.

The facts alleged by Ruth Warner are also insufficient to state a due process claim under the 14th Amendment as Doucette’s conduct does not come close to the egregious conduct necessary to support such a claim. Contrary to Ruth Warner’s contentions, Doucette did not reveal any specific diagnosis Jonathan Warner may have had, identify any medications he was taking or otherwise reveal specific medical information in either the press conference or press release.

The only disclosures made by Doucette were that Jonathan Warner had significant psychological disorders and had not taken his medications for several days before the shooting incident. Notably, however, as the location of the shooting —the secured psychiatric emergency center at the hospital— was indisputably public knowledge at the time of Doucette’s press conference, the fact that Jonathan Warner needed psychiatric treatment was already public.

Moreover, charging decisions are a clear prosecutorial function, explaining such decisions to the public is neither irrational, unprofessional nor unreasonable and it can hardly be disputed that the cursory information about Jonathan Warner presented by Doucette was likely necessary to a full understanding of Doucette’s decision not to charge.

Turning to the state law invasion of privacy claim, the Supreme Court of Virginia has ruled, in an unpublished decision, that the statute relied upon by Ruth Warner in support of this claim, Virginia Code § 32.1-127.1:03, does not provide a private right of action. In addition, there is no such common law claim in Virginia and Virginia’s invasion of privacy statute, which applies to cases of misappropriation, is not applicable to the facts of this case. In any event, Doucette is entitled to immunity as his press conference and release were discretionary acts, and Doucette’s actions do not arise to the level of gross negligence.

Motion to dismiss granted.

Warner v. Doucette, Case No. 6:18-cv-64, July 30, 2019. WDVA at Lynchburg (Dillon). VLW 019-3-368. 15 pp.

VLW 019-3-368

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