Ex-employee of Quest Diagnostics allegedly also breached patient privacy laws
By manufacturing a fake positive clinical pathology laboratory test report for a sexually transmitted disease (STD), a medical laboratory manager in Alton, Illinois, set in motion a series of events that made headlines in St. Louis-area newspapers earlier this year. These actions also generated a lawsuit against clinical laboratory manager Maureen Sackmann and her then-employer, Quest Diagnostics Incorporated (NYSE: DGX).
The story is worthy of the best television soap opera plot—and has plenty of cautionary lessons for all clinical laboratory managers and pathologists. Press accounts of the episode indicate that, while working for Quest Diagnostics in Alton, Illinois, Sackmann noticed that a laboratory test report had been generated for a woman (identified only as Jane Doe) who was dating her ex-boyfriend.
The Madison St. Clair Record published a reasonably concise account of the events, which took place in 2008. It makes for fascinating reading. It also identifies how a laboratory’s compliance and privacy policies and procedures can be compromised by a rogue employee in unexpected ways. Reporter Kelly Holleran wrote, in part:
“According to the [plaintiff’s civil] complaint, the [Quest Diagnostics] lab results confirmed that Jane Doe tested positive for Herpes Simplex 2.
“At the time, Sackmann worked as a manager for Quest and knew of Jane Doe because she had previously been involved in a relationship with Jane Doe’s boyfriend, the suit states. In fact, Jane Doe believes Sackmann and her boyfriend continued to have sexual relations as she dated him.
“‘On or about September 2008, Sackmann contacted John Doe and told him that she had looked up Plaintiff’s private lab results at Quest which revealed that Plaintiff had herpes,’ the complaint says. ‘Sackmann further claimed that she had also tested positive for the virus and that she must have gotten it from him (John Doe) because he must have gotten the virus from the Plaintiff. John Doe denied that he was positive for the virus and denied that he had passed the virus to Sackmann.’
“After John Doe’s denial, Sackmann invented a false lab report, which showed she tested positive for the disease, Jane Doe claims. Sackmann then showed the results to John Doe in an attempt to force him to admit that Jane Doe had herpes, according to the complaint. Still, John Doe continued to deny he had the disease. Later, Sackmann admitted to lying, the suit states.
In addition, she admitted to investigating and finding Jane Doe’s lab results and offered to bring John Doe to Quest’s Alton location to show him the results, the complaint says.
In October 2008, John Doe decided to get tested for an STD, but his results came back negative, Jane Doe claims. He then revealed to Jane Doe about Sackmann’s behavior and called Sackmann’s supervisor at Quest to make a formal complaint, according to the complaint. ‘Plaintiff believes that Sackmann was terminated by Quest because of her actions,’ the suit states.”
Certainly this unusual episode provides a real case study of the different ways that an employee can breach patient privacy and involve the medical laboratory in expensive civil litigation and possibly even criminal prosecution. Plaintiff Jane Doe’s civil suit includes these seven charges against Sackmann and Quest Diagnostics:
1. Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (Sackmann)
2. Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress (Quest Diagnostics)
3. Breach of Fiduciary Duty (Quest Diagnostics)—Reckless Indifference
4. Intrusion Upon the Seclusion of Another (Sackmann)
5. Public Disclosure of Private Facts (Sackmann)
6. Intrusion Upon the Seclusion of Another (Quest Diagnostics)
7. Public Disclosure of Private Facts (Quest Diagnostics)
This civil case has now gone before a judge who will determine the extent of Jane Doe’s damages and award remuneration. The judge must also decide to what extent Quest was also negligent. The plaintiff is requesting as much as $350,000 in damages.
This bizarre episode brings into question a clinical laboratory’s ability to maintain total security of a patient’s private health information (PHI). It is also a reminder of the consequences to the clinical laboratory should patient confidentiality be compromised. At a minimum, it is a reminder to all clinical laboratory managers and pathologists that patient privacy can be breached at any time, and for the most unexpected reasons.
Medical laboratories may want to use the “Maureen Sackmann” affair as a useful teaching tool, since multiple aspects of the HIPAA law and privacy compliance requirements appear to have been violated by Ms. Sackmann.