Thursday, July 31, 2003
C.A.: Dentist’s Disclosure of Officer’s Drug Problem Not Privacy Violation
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A dentist did not violate California’s medical privacy statute by reporting to the San Francisco Police Department that one of its officers, a patient of the dentist, might have a problem with prescription drugs, the First District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Div. Four, in an opinion by Presiding Justice Laurence Kay, affirmed San Francisco Superior Court Judge Thomas J. Mellon’s ruling in favor of the dentist, Jeffrey J. Bertani. The panel agreed that the disclosure was “specifically authorized by law” and was thus not prohibited by the Confidentiality of Medical Information Act.
Officer Ricky Shaddox, a member of the department since 1989, was seen by Bertani in April 1998. When the dentist could not find any source for the pain Shaddox was claiming, he suggested that the officer simply have his teeth cleaned.
Bertani later testified that Shaddox asked for Vicodin, which Bertani would not prescribe. The officer, Bertani told Mellon at the bench trial on the officer’s lawsuit, “gave this icy glare as if he wanted to...beat me up.”
Bertani said he called another of his patients, an SFPD inspector, and said he thought he had “a dangerous situation” in which a police officer was attempting to obtain narcotics for which he had no apparent need. The inspector referred Bertani to the internal affairs division.
Bertani reviewed his office’s records and disclosed that Shaddox had been seen by another dentist and requested pain medication on previous occasions. The other dentist had made a notation the previous year that Shaddox should not receive pain medication, especially Vicodin, and had refused refill requests.
Following the department’s investigation, Shaddox was disciplined for failing to notify his supervisor that he was impaired as a result of use of legal drugs. At the time his suit against the dentist came to trial three years later, he was still with the SFPD, but was assigned to a desk job and claimed that the incident had effectively ended any chance he would ever be promoted.
Mellon ruled for the defendant after a four-day trial.
In concluding that the trial judge was correct, Kay cited San Francisco’s charter, which encourages citizens to report claims of police misconduct. He also noted that a statute requires police departments to establish citizen complaint procedures.
Bertani’s disclosure was also protected by the official proceedings privilege, Kay said.
The presiding justice rejected the contention that the “authorized by law” exception to confidentiality only applies when a law specifically declares that a health care practitioner is permitted to disclose medical information. The plaintiff’s emphasis on the word “specifically,” Kay said, “is overly narrow.”
The statutory language as a whole, Kay reasoned, reflects legislative intent to maintain existing public policy with regard to permitted disclosures. “Dr. Bertani was alerting the SFPD about one of its officers possibly having a problem that could impair his ability to perform the vital public safety responsibilities entrusted to a metropolitan law enforcement agency,” the presiding justice wrote, something the Legislature clearly intended to allow.
The case is Shaddox v. Bertani, A097480.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company