While discussing her unexpected unemployment, a friend suggested that Ms. J speak to an attorney about suing the clinic to get her job back.

“It’s not like you publicized the actress’s medical condition or ran to the press,” said her friend. “You really didn’t do anything other than verify that it was the actress who was being treated. No one was harmed and no one even had to know about it.”

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“I didn’t divulge anything,” agreed Ms. J. “There was no HIPAA violation, so why should they have fired me?”

Ms. J found an attorney who specialized in employment law and went in for a consultation. The attorney asked Ms. J to bring a copy of the clinic’s policy manual.

The attorney listened to Ms. J’s story and carefully looked through the employment manual. Then he asked Ms. J the crucial question: whether she had signed anything when she was given the manual. Ms. J recalled signing a one-page statement acknowledging that she had read and agreed to the terms in the handbook.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “but I advise you to focus your energy on looking for a new job.”

“But why?” asked Ms. J.

The lawyer explained that there was no case. When Ms. J was hired two years earlier, she signed a statement indicating that she would comply with a clearly spelled-out privacy policy, including a proviso against looking at patient files unless the patient in question was directly under her care. The handbook specifically stated that any breach of the clinic’s privacy policy would be grounds for immediate dismissal.

Legal background

Most attorneys offer gratis consultations to people who are considering a lawsuit. A free consult gives both parties a chance to decide whether they can work together successfully. It also provides the potential client with a professional opinion on potential outcomes while giving the attorney an opportunity to get an overview of the case and decide whether it’s worth taking.

In cases in which an attorney is paid on a contingency basis (most personal injury cases are contracted in this way), he or she does not get paid unless the outcome is favorable to the client. It is therefore essential for the attorney to choose cases that have a high rate of success. Even when a case is not contracted on contingency and the attorney is paid by the hour, the chance of success must still be carefully weighed. For a litigator, there is no point in taking on a case when there is little to no chance of winning.

Protecting yourself

Patient privacy is a serious matter, and health-care facilities are tightening their policies to ensure that patients are protected.

Ms. J believed that a quick peek at the patient’s file would do no harm, especially if she didn’t look at the diagnostic information. But she ignored the clinic’s clear-cut policy. Beyond that, her oath as a patient-care provider should have precluded her from behaving in such a manner.

New hires are often overwhelmed with administrative paperwork, but one bit of advice should hold — never sign anything that you haven’t read. By signing and returning the form, Ms. J agreed to the policies contained therein. Had she read the handbook, Ms. J probably would have resisted the temptation to look at a patient’s record and would have not lost a lucrative and upwardly mobile job.