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Serrano v. Christ Hospital

December 21, 2007

ELIA SERRANO, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
CHRIST HOSPITAL, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hudson County, Docket No. L-4733-05.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued December 3, 2007

Before Judges Collester and C.S. Fisher.

Plaintiff alleged that defendant Christ Hospital wrongfully discharged her from employment. Even though plaintiff arguably divulged confidential patient information to her child's teacher, she claimed her actions were justified because she knew her child's classmate may have been exposed to a serious, infectious illness and had not been medically cleared. Because plaintiff's revelation of confidential information was arguably mandated by public policy, the hospital's summary judgment motion should have been denied.

This unique case requires application of the standards governing claims for wrongful termination of at-will employees enunciated in Pierce v. Ortho Pharm. Corp., 84 N.J. 58 (1980). Since the trial judge granted summary judgment in favor of the hospital, we view the propriety of her ruling by examining the facts in the light most favorable to plaintiff, the opponent of the motion. Brill v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 142 N.J. 520, 540 (1995).

Plaintiff had been employed by the hospital or its predecessor since graduating from high school in 1988. At the time in question, plaintiff was employed as a secretary in the hospital's ICU Department.

In 2001, plaintiff executed a confidentiality statement, which indicated that "patient care data" was confidential and that she was barred from revealing this and other confidential information "at all times, both at work and off duty." By signing this statement, plaintiff acknowledged she was aware that "a violation of the confidentiality requirements may result in disciplinary action, including termination or legal action."*fn1

One of the hospital's written policies states:

The care of a patient is always personal in nature. Therefore, any information about their [sic] condition, care, treatment or other personal data is strictly confidential and must not be discussed with anyone other than those directly responsible for his [or her] care and treatment.

This information must never be discussed outside the Hospital. Only designated employees may release information for publication.

Plaintiff has not alleged she was unaware of this policy at the times in question.

The record further reveals that plaintiff spoke and understood both English and Spanish. On October 11, 2004, she was asked to translate for an elderly Spanish-speaking patient. At the time, the treating physician was attempting to determine whether the patient was suffering from meningitis. As part of her involvement with this patient, plaintiff met the patient's daughter, and also learned the patient's daughter had children. She was also aware from her dealings with this family that the patient's daughter was instructed to have her children examined by a doctor before they returned to school. The patient's daughter had a four-year old son named Christian. Later that evening, plaintiff learned that Christian attended the same school as her own daughter.

The next morning, plaintiff took her child to nursery school. She observed that Christian was also in attendance and that he was coughing. Alarmed by this -- based on what she learned about Christian's grandparent's medical condition --plaintiff decided to take her daughter home. Plaintiff testified at her deposition that the following occurred ...


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