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Appellate Court Rules on HIPAA Qualified Protective Orders

HIPAAThe Appellate Court of Illinois for the Second District recently issued a decision on HIPAA qualified protective orders (QPOs) that would provide heightened protections for plaintiff privacy in the state.

QPOs Provided Fewer Protections for Plaintiffs

In late 2017, Cook County circuit courts began requiring the use of a “form” qualified protective order (QPO) in connection with personal injury lawsuits. Some of the most controversial features of the Cook County form QPO were that it permitted defendants’ insurance companies to disclose, maintain, and use the plaintiffs’ protected health information, and it also exempted these companies from complying with the “return or destroy” provisions of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (“HIPAA”). Essentially, the form QPO allowed insurers to retain the plaintiffs’ health information for as long as they wanted. Plaintiffs who refused to agree to the form order were often advised in court that their cases would be dismissed.

There was immediate and strong opposition to this order, as plaintiffs and their lawyers insisted that the Cook County form QPO unfairly required plaintiffs to surrender the protections Congress intended to provide them through HIPAA as a precondition for exercising their constitutional right to access the courts to seek compensation for their injuries. Plaintiff lawyers also argued that, as a federal law, HIPAA created a minimum acceptable level of privacy for health information, necessarily preempting any non-federal laws or orders that fell short of the required minimum, such as the Cook County form QPO.

Recent Appellate Court Decision on HIPAA QPOs

On March 13, 2020, the Appellate Court of Illinois for the Second District issued an opinion in Haage v. Montiel Zavala. Haage involved two consolidated personal injury cases in which the plaintiffs had asked the Lake County circuit court to enter QPOs that, in contrast to the Cook County “form” order, prohibited any use of protected health information for purposes other than the litigation and required the return or destruction of this information within sixty days of the conclusion of the litigation.

State Farm, the insurer for certain defendants in both cases, intervened, requesting that Cook County’s form order be used instead. The circuit courts ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor, however, and the Second District affirmed this decision. The appellate court’s comprehensive decision addresses each of State Farm’s arguments and also offers a detailed explanation of why those arguments failed. The court relied heavily on one of the key reasons Congress enacted HIPAA in the first place – to protect the privacy of individually-identifiable health information – and the principle that HIPAA, as a federal law, preempts any state or local laws or orders that provide a lesser degree of protection.

It is worth noting that the Second District is only one of five Illinois appellate districts, and Cook County sits in a different district (the First). In the event that the First District were to address a case involving similar issues, it would not be obligated to follow Haage. Moreover, the Illinois Supreme Court could choose to undertake further review of the case and reach a different conclusion than the Second District did. Nevertheless, Haage is currently the only appellate-level published decision addressing the Cook County form QPO, and it rests on sound logic.

Personal Injury Lawyers Serving Illinois Plaintiffs

At GWC Injury Lawyers LLC, we applaud the appellate court’s decision in this case. We believe that it represents a significant victory for Illinois plaintiffs, who should not have to abdicate their privacy protections in order to seek justice, something that our personal injury attorneys seek to provide our clients each and every day. And with more than $2 billion recovered in verdicts and settlements, we think our record of success speaks for itself.

If you have been wrongfully injured by the negligent actions of another party, contact GWC today to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation with one of our Chicago personal injury lawyers. You may call our office at (312) 464-1234 or click here to chat with a representative at any time.