Regulation of Medicine

article

Responding to Subpoenas for Personnel Records

By: Jason B. Malone, Jackson Lewis P.C.
Executive Summary 

Healthcare organizations, as employers, are often served with state or federal subpoenas demanding the production of documents that relate to their employees. Due consideration must be given to these subpoenas, especially if they request the employee’s medical records. Healthcare professionals should understand their responsibilities and obligations to ensure that they mitigate any risk for a HIPAA violation. 

Recommended Actions  
  • Maintain copies of all subpoenas for personal records and all associated correspondence in the employee’s file. 
  • Ensure that your practice has a process for flagging any subpoenas that come in the mail for immediate review. 
  • Consider implementing a checklist for staff members to use when determining whether a subpoena is valid. 

What if your employee is involved in a legal matter that has nothing to do with your practice, and you receive a Subpoena Duces Tecum (subpoena) — a legal term for request for documents? You know the employee’s legal matter is completely unrelated to his employment. Do you have to respond to this subpoena? The short answer is yes. 

A subpoena effectively operates as a court order directing the recipient to provide requested documents or to appear in person to provide testimony.1 In some jurisdictions, a subpoena must be issued by a court; in others, attorneys may issue the subpoena as officers of the court. Under either circumstance, the recipient must timely respond; failing to do so may result in monetary fines, legal fees to the issuing party or, in certain cases, a judgment against the practice. How you respond, however, may depend on several factors. 

Consider the following: 

Is the subpoena valid? 

Employers are encouraged to consult their counsel of choice to review subpoenas to determine their validity, scope, time to respond and whether there is a need to address procedural or substantive concerns. Most jurisdictions require a subpoena to contain certain minimal information to be deemed valid.2 Under the federal rules governing civil litigation, for instance, to be valid the subpoena must: 1) state the name of the court that issued the subpoena; 2) provide the title of the relevant court proceeding and its civilaction number; 3) include a statement as to whether the subpoena is commanding the responding party to appear, testify or produce records; and 4) provide information to the named party about their rights to object to the subpoena and duties to respond to the subpoena.3 The subpoena must also provide the time within which a response must be provided. 

Although many states follow these federal law requirements for a subpoena to be valid, other states maintain different or additional rules for issuing or responding to third-party subpoenas. 

Can I object to responding to a subpoena? 

Yes, but the objections must be based on concerns with either the validity of the subpoena (i.e., it does not provide you with the statutory amount of time to respond; it was issued to an incorrectly named entity; you need additional time to respond); or the nature or the substance of the requests (i.e., the requests are overly broad and unduly burdensome in that they seek 10 years of payroll records; or the request would require the production of trade secrets). An objection on grounds you do not want to be involved in the matter typically will not get you out of having to respond to the subpoena. 

Factors to consider in making objections include: 
  1. How many documents are requested
  2. How much time will be needed to gather the information
  3. Whether the categories of documents sought are overly broad
  4. Whether the documents sought are protected by attorney-client privilege or other protected classifications such as trade secrets or confidential or proprietary business information
  5. Does the subpoena provide a reasonable amount of time to respond
  6. Will the employer take on substantial expense in collecting or producing the requested information.

If there are concerns with the subpoena, contact the issuing party sooner, rather than later, to see if you can work out an informal resolution. For example, if you need additional time to pull responsive documents from storage, let the issuing party know and try to agree on a new date, time, and manner of production. Provide written confirmation to the issuer outlining the date of your request, to whom you spoke, the agreed-upon resolution and the new date on which the parties have agreed the production will occur. Similarly, if you have agreed to provide two years of payroll records rather than 10 years as set forth in the subpoena, for instance, that agreement should be fully documented and confirmed in writing with the issuing agent. 

If you and the issuer cannot reach an informal agreement, then you may need to get the court involved by filing formal, written objections to the subpoena. In most jurisdictions, you will need your legal counsel to assist with court filings. Be mindful of your deadline to respond or raise objections to the subpoena. If you miss the deadline to respond to the subpoena, then you also may have waived your ability to raise objections. 

You may ask the court to quash, or deny, the subpoena in whole or in part, or you may ask the court to modify certain requests in the subpoena. Generally, if formal objections to the subpoena have been filed with a court, such filing typically will hold the time for you to respond to the subpoena until the judge has issued a ruling on your objections. 

On a timely motion, a court must quash or modify a subpoena that: 1) fails to allow a reasonable time to comply, 2) requires travel of more than 100 miles, 3) requires disclosure of privileged matters or 4) subjects a person to undue burden.4 To qualify as being timely will depend upon either federal, state or local court rules. 

Additionally, with a timely motion, a court may quash or modify a subpoena if it requires: 1) disclosing a trade secret or other confidential information or 2) disclosing an unretained expert’s opinion or information that does not describe specific occurrences in dispute.5 A court may hold the employer in contempt if it fails or refuses to comply with a subpoena without adequate excuse.6 

What am I required to produce? 

What you are required to produce will depend, in part, on what requests have been made by the subpoena and about whom those requests pertain. 

Before any documents are produced, confirm that your employee (or your employee’s attorney) has been advised that the subpoena has been issued. Your employee may have grounds to raise objections to the requests. If such formal objections are raised with the court, then your obligation to produce such records generally will be put on hold until the court issues a ruling. It is not enough for an employee to simply tell you that he objects to the requested documents being produced. Unless you have (written) confirmation from the issuing party or a court order quashing or modifying the subpoena, you remain obligated to respond to the subpoena as written. 

In response to a subpoena for employment records, generally, all documents from an employee’s personnel records should be produced, unless state or local law specifically exempts certain documents from production. That said, absent a court order to the contrary, for example, employers should remove sensitive and confidential information from personnel records before producing to the requesting party. 

For example, employers should endeavor to remove information such as protected health information, medical records and wage garnishment records. Some jurisdictions provide specific requirements in this regard. In Georgia, for instance, employers must protect an employee’s records concerning mental illness treatment, developmental disability treatment, alcohol and drug treatment and AIDS.7 Although many jurisdictions do not provide specific guidance on what records employers must keep confidential, employers should be cautious in producing employees’ medical and other confidential information to third parties (such as child garnishment orders). 

In some circumstances, a subpoena may specifically request an employee’s medical records. When this occurs, an employer must ensure that either 1) the employee’s signed release has been provided with the subpoena or 2) you obtain a release from the employee whose records are being sought. 

Finally, employers should be mindful of personnel records that may contain references to, or information about, other employees. Investigations, memoranda, internal complaints and disciplinary files frequently focus on multiple employees and are often cross-referenced in employee files. Additionally, documents that memorialize an entire team or group’s work performance may include potentially sensitive information about other employees. Due consideration, along with consultation with your counsel, should be given to whether documents regarding an employee who is not subject to the subpoena should be redacted or withheld. 

Who should I send the documents to? 

After gathering the requested documents and removing medical information, an employer should serve the documents on the requesting party with a copy to non-requesting parties as well. Reasonable copy or delivery fees can be charged for duplicating and for the logistics of producing the records. Your attorney’s fees generally are not recoverable for standard responses to third-party subpoenas for documents. 

Lessons Learned 
  • Calendar all-important dates concerning a subpoena, including your response deadline and/or the last day you can make an objection.  
  • Consider consulting with counsel when you first get a subpoena to determine the validity, scope or any substantive or production concerns.  
  • Document all communications with the issuing agent regarding the subpoena and maintain copies of this documentation in one safe location. 
Potential Damages 

Inappropriate handling of employee’s personnel records, especially when it comes to the employee’s medical records, could mean a healthcare organization faces a HIPAA violation. Although the frequency of such violations is relatively low, the associated financial penalties and fines add up. 

Quiz 

Answers are provided below 

True or false? 

Question 1: I can simply hand over an employee’s medical records if the agent is requesting “all employment records.” 

Question 2: You should use extra caution when an employee’s personnel record includes sensitive information about other employees. 

Question 3: In addition to medical records, I can also withhold other sensitive and confidential information from the requesting party. 

Answers 

Question 1: False. When a subpoena specifically requests an employee’s medical records, an employer must ensure that either 1) the employee’s signed release has been provided with the subpoena or 2) that the employer obtains a release from the employee whose records are being sought. 

Question 2: True. Investigations, memoranda, internal complaints and disciplinary files frequently focus on multiple employees and are often cross-referenced in employee files. Additionally, documents that memorialize an entire team or group’s work performance may include potentially sensitive information about other employees. Due consideration, along with consultation with your counsel, should be given to whether documents regarding an employee who is not subject to the subpoena should be redacted or withheld. 

Question 3: True. Employers should remove sensitive and confidential information from personnel records, such as child garnishment orders or protected health information, before sending them to the requesting party. 

12/22

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Disclaimer

The information provided in this resource does not constitute legal, medical or any other professional advice, nor does it establish a standard of care. This resource has been created as an aid to you in your practice. The ultimate decision on how to use the information provided rests solely with you, the PolicyOwner.