Sierra Leone immigrant alleges her health care provider illegally disclosed her HIV-positive status

By Nicholas Malfitano | Jan 28, 2019


PHILADELPHIA – A Sierra Leone woman who claims a nurse working for her health care provider improperly disclosed her HIV-positive medical status is now suing both the nurse and care provider for what she alleges was an illegal disclosure of privileged medical information.

Widow F.T. filed suit in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas on Oct. 16 versus Philadelphia Nurse-Family Partnership Program, Public Health Management Corporation and Katy Baker-Cohen, all of Philadelphia.

In 2015, the plaintiff was pregnant with her daughter and registered with defendant NFP for prenatal and new baby care. Through NFP, the plaintiff was assigned a nurse for said care, defendant Baker-Cohen, the suit says.

During her pregnancy, Widow F.T. was diagnosed with HIV, but decided to keep her medical status private because of the fear and stigma surrounding HIV in their immigrant community, the suit says.

On Oct. 16, 2017, the plaintiff’s husband died after a battle with cancer, the suit says. The following day, Baker-Cohen allegedly went to the plaintiff’s home to provide new baby care, being greeted by the plaintiff and her sister-in-law. In the wake of her husband’s death, the plaintiff confided her concerns about her immigration status to both her sister-in-law and Baker-Cohen, the suit says.

Baker-Cohen allegedly offered to call a connection she knew who was proficient in immigration law to assist the plaintiff. But when she did so, she publicly disclosed the plaintiff’s HIV-positive status in front of the plaintiff and her sister-in-law, the suit says.

The lawsuit says this revelation led the plaintiff’s sister-in-law to share the information with relatives in their native country of Sierra Leone, led members of her late husband’s family to confront her about his HIV diagnosis and caused them to withdraw their financial and childcare support to her – support they had pledged to her after her husband’s passing.

“Plaintiff’s husband’s family was her sole source of Mandingo-speaking community since plaintiff emigrated from Sierra Leone. As a direct and proximate result of this disclosure, plaintiff has lost her community and become socially-isolated. Additionally, as a direct and proximate result of this disclosure, plaintiff’s HIV status has become known to her family and community in Sierra Leone. Family members have told her she is no longer welcome to visit,” the suit says.

“On Oct. 23, 2017, with the help of her medical case manager, plaintiff called defendant Baker-Cohen to complain about the breach of confidentiality. During the phone call, defendant Baker-Cohen apologized for discussing plaintiff’s confidential health information in front of a visitor. Plaintiff terminated services with defendant NFP because of the breach of confidentiality.”

On the same day, Oct. 16, the plaintiff filed a motion seeking the court’s permission to pursue her case under a pseudonym, fearing the “widespread knowledge of her HIV status may lead to further stigma and discrimination against her” and that she “would not be likely to pursue this [case] unless she was permitted to proceed under a pseudonym.”

The motion cited federal court precedent, mentioned Pennsylvania recognizes the strong privacy interest in HIV-positive patients not having their status publicly disclosed and described as the plaintiff is not a public figure, there would be no compelling interest in her identity being known.

On Nov. 8, Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas Judge Paula Patrick approved the plaintiff’s motion to proceed under a pseudonym.

For breach of confidentiality under the confidentiality of HIV-Related Information Act, violation of the right to privacy and negligence, the plaintiff is seeking a declaration that defendants committed the violations of law listed in the complaint, compensatory and actual damages including those caused by emotional distress, attorney’s fees, costs and expenses, injunctive relief, including the implementation of policies and procedures to protect HIV-related information and other relief, in law or equity, as the court may deem appropriate and just.

The plaintiff is represented by Adrian M. Lowe and Ronda B. Goldfein of The AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.

The defendants do not yet have legal counsel, according to court records.

Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas case 181002105

From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at nick.malfitano@therecordinc.com

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