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Smith v. Datla

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

July 12, 2017

JOHN SMITH, a fictitious person, Plaintiff-Respondent,
v.
ARVIND R. DATLA, M.D. and CONSULTANTS IN KIDNEY DISEASES, P.A., Defendants-Appellants.

          Argued May 8, 2017

         On appeal from an interlocutory order of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Mercer County, Docket No. L-1527-15.

          Mark A. Petraske argued the cause for appellants (Buckley, Theroux, Kline& Petraske, LLC, attorneys; Mr. Petraskeand Teresa C. Finnegan, on the briefs).

          Craig J. Hubert argued the cause for respondent (Szaferman, Lakind, Blumstein & Blader, PC, attorneys; Mr. Hubert, of counsel and on the brief; Keith L. Hovey and Brandon C. Simmons, on the brief).

          E. Drew Britcher argued the cause for amicus curiae New Jersey Association for Justice (Britcher Leone, LLC, attorneys; Mr. Britcher, of counsel; Jessica E. Choper, on the brief).

         William H. Mergner, Jr. argued the cause for amicus curiae New Jersey State Bar Association (New Jersey State Bar Association, attorneys; Thomas H. Prol, President, of counsel; Mr. Mergner and Liana M. Nobile, on the brief).

          Before Judges Sabatino, Haas and Geiger.

          OPINION

          GEIGER, J.S.C. (temporarily assigned).

         This appeal raises the unresolved issue of what statute of limitations applies to a common-law invasion of privacy claim arising out of a defendant harmfully revealing private facts about a plaintiff to a third party. It also raises the related question of what limitations period applies to a statutory cause of action for a defendant's improper disclosure of a plaintiff's HIV-positive status[1] committed in violation of the AIDS Assistance Act (Act), N.J.S.A. 26:5C-1 to -14. The trial court held that both such claims are subject to a two-year statute of limitations. The trial court further ruled that plaintiff's medical malpractice claim was also subject to a two-year statute of limitations. We affirm.

         This civil action seeks monetary damages and an award of attorney's fees for invasion of privacy, violation of the Act, and medical malpractice. The first legal issue presented by this appeal is whether the tort of invasion of privacy by public disclosure of private facts is an "injury to the person" barred by the two-year limitation period set forth in N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2, or instead by the one-year limitation period for defamation set forth in N.J.S.A. 2A:14-3. The second legal issue is whether a violation of the Act is subject to a one-year or two-year limitation period. The third issue is whether a claim of medical malpractice based upon the same wrongful public disclosure of private medical facts is subject to a one-year or two-year limitation period.

         Before addressing these issues, we note the standard of review that governs our analysis. Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint under Rule 4:6-2(e) for "failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted." Because this appeal is from the denial of such a dismissal motion, we must accept as true plaintiff's version of the events. Rumbauskas v. Cantor, 138 N.J. 173, 175 (1994). Here, the issues raised by defendants do not involve a challenge to fact-finding on the part of the trial court, but rather involve pure questions of law.

         On appeal, we engage in a de novo review from a trial court's decision to grant or deny a motion to dismiss filed pursuant to Rule 4:6-2(e). Rezen Family Assoc., LP v. Borough of Millstone, 423 N.J.Super. 103, 114 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 208 N.J. 366 (2011). Moreover, when analyzing pure questions of law raised in a dismissal motion, such as the application of a statute of limitations, we undertake a de novo review. See Royster v. N.J. State Police, 227 N.J. 482, 493 (2017); Town of Kearny v. Brandt, 214 N.J. 76, 91 (2013). A "trial court's interpretation of the law and the legal consequences that flow from established facts are not entitled to any special deference." Manalapan Realty, L.P. v. Twp. Comm. of Manalapan, 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995).

         I.

         The limited record in this interlocutory appeal reflects that plaintiff John Smith[2] was a patient of defendant, Dr. Arvind R. Datla, a board-certified nephrologist. Co-defendant, Consultants in Kidney Diseases, PA, is a medical practice employing or owned by Dr. Datla. Dr. Datla was treating plaintiff for acute kidney failure. During an emergent bedside consultation in plaintiff's private hospital room on July 25, 2013, Dr. Datla discussed with plaintiff his medical condition. While doing so, Dr. Datla disclosed plaintiff's HIV-positive status in the presence of an unidentified third party who was also in the room.[3] Plaintiff claims that Dr. Datla thereby revealed his HIV-positive status to the third party without his consent.

         Plaintiff sued defendants, pleading various related theories. In his original complaint, plaintiff alleged invasion of privacy based on the inappropriate disclosure of private, confidential medical information to a third-party without plaintiff's consent, in violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 ("HIPAA"), 13 U.S.C.A. § 1320 (count one).[4] He also alleged medical malpractice based on the inappropriate disclosure (count two). Plaintiff further alleged that after the disclosure, Dr. Datla attempted "to create a fraudulent ruse by which [Dr. Datla] would allege in front of the unauthorized third party and plaintiff that the medical information that had been disclosed referred, in fact, to a different patient."

         Plaintiff filed his complaint on July 1, 2015, almost two years after the July 25, 2013 disclosure event. Plaintiff contends that the disclosure of his HIV-positive status by defendant was negligent, careless, reckless, willful and wanton. Plaintiff claims that the disclosure caused him to endure pain and suffering, emotional distress, other emotional injuries and insult, and permanent injury with physiological consequences.

         In his answer, Dr. Datla identifies himself as a board-certified specialist in nephrology and asserts that he was practicing nephrology in this case. After a Ferriera[5] conference, plaintiff produced an affidavit of merit (AOM) from a board-certified specialist in internal medicine.

         Prior to the filing of plaintiff's amended complaint, defendants simultaneously filed two separate motions to dismiss plaintiff's complaint. One motion sought dismissal of plaintiff's medical malpractice claim (count two) on grounds that an AOM by a physician who is not a board-certified nephrologist violates the Patients First Act, N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-27, N.J.S.A. 2A:53A-41, and the Court's holding in Nicholas v. Mynster, 213 N.J. 463, 487 (2013). The other motion sought dismissal of plaintiff's invasion of privacy claim (count one) on grounds that HIPAA does not provide for a private right of action. The trial court denied each motion in separate orders dated August 19, 2016. The judge found that because plaintiff's medical malpractice claim did not involve Dr. Datla's specialty as a nephrologist, an AOM by a board-certified internist was sufficient. The judge further found that although there is no private right of action under HIPAA[6], plaintiff adequately pleaded and could proceed under a common-law invasion of privacy claim. Defendants did not move for leave to appeal either of those orders.

         On that same day, the trial court granted plaintiff leave to amend his complaint. Plaintiff's amended complaint asserts three causes of action: (1) invasion of privacy based on public disclosure of private facts (count one); (2) medical malpractice based on the improper disclosure (count two); and (3) violation of the Act (count three). Plaintiff demands judgment for compensatory damages, interest, attorney's fees, and costs of suit, but he did not seek an award of punitive damages.

         Subsequently, in September 2016, defendants filed a third motion to dismiss the now-amended complaint, arguing that all three claims were time-barred by a one-year statute of limitations. Specifically, defendants argued that all three claims were predicated on the public disclosure of private facts and should be subject to the same statute of limitations. Although New Jersey courts have not established a statute of limitations for the public disclosure of private facts, defendants analogized that type of invasion of privacy claim to claims for placing plaintiff in a false light in the public eye and defamation. Citing Rumbauskas, supra and Swan v. Boardwalk Regency, 407 N.J.Super. 108 (App. Div. 2009), defendants further argued that a one-year statute of limitations should apply to all three counts because each count arose from the same operative facts, albeit under different legal theories. Plaintiff countered that he does not claim defamation, and that the general two-year statute of limitations for personal injury claims should apply to all three counts.

         For purposes of their motion, defendants assumed that the facts alleged in plaintiff's amended complaint were true. Namely, they assumed that the unauthorized and improper disclosure allegedly made by Dr. Datla in the presence of a third party that plaintiff was HIV-positive violated the Act, and constituted invasion of privacy and medical malpractice.

         Plaintiff concedes that, as his medical provider, Dr. Datla lawfully possessed the confidential record that plaintiff was HIV-positive. Plaintiff further concedes that the disclosure that he was HIV-positive was truthful.

         Defendants appeal from the October 19, 2016 order denying their motion to dismiss. The judge held that a two-year statute of limitations applied to all three counts. The judge focused on the fact that the alleged harm resulted from the dissemination of a truthful statement to a third party without plaintiff's consent, rather than publication of a false statement about plaintiff. In his oral decision, the judge stated:

There are three separate claims here. There's no doubt that there are three separate claims but they arise from a common core set of facts, which is the disclosure of private information to the public.

         The judge rejected the argument that the common set of facts precluded different legal claims, concluding that "each claim has different elements surrounding those common set of facts." The judge found plaintiff's claims to be similar to an intrusion claim. In describing defendants' conduct, the judge stated:

So it's not someone creating words or creating a document, it's words or a document that was disclosed improperly, at least that's the allegation. So it goes to the issue of an intrusion [into] somebody's private life.

         The judge also held that plaintiff's malpractice claim was subject to the two-year statute of limitations, as was his claim under the Act because it was "a personal injury claim" that has "an impact on the plaintiff's personhood."

         We granted defendants' motion for leave to appeal the October 19, 2016 order. On appeal, defendants raise the following arguments: (1) the disclosure of private medical information constitutes invasion of privacy; (2) New Jersey case law imputes a one-year statute of limitations on invasion of privacy claims based on words; (3) an invasion of privacy based on public disclosure of private facts is directly analogous to claims for placing plaintiff in a false light and defamation; (4) claims for public disclosure of private facts are governed by the one-year statute of limitations for defamation; and (5) plaintiff's claim for public disclosure of private facts is grossly dissimilar to invasion of privacy by intrusion.

         II.

         "Statutes of limitations are essentially equitable in nature, promoting the timely and efficient litigation of claims." Montells v. Haynes, 133 N.J. 282, 292 (1993) (citing Ochs v. Federal Ins. Co., 90 N.J. 108 (1982)). They spare courts from litigating stale claims, penalize dilatoriness, and serve as measures of repose. Farrell v. Votator Div., 62 N.J. 111, 115 (1973); Rosenau v. City of New Brunswick, 51 N.J. 130, 136 (1968).

         Actions for personal injuries must be commenced within two years after the cause of action accrues. Baird v. Am. Med. Optics, 155 N.J. 54, 65 (1998) (citing N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2). "Where the damages sought are for injuries to the person, the applicable statute is [N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2] which fixes the period of two years irrespective of the form of the action." Burns v. Bethlehem Steel Co., 20 N.J. 37, 39-40 (1955) (two-year personal injury statute of limitations applied to hearing loss claim of third-party beneficiary of contract between union and employer).[7]

         Claims for defamation are subject to the one-year statute of limitations imposed by N.J.S.A. 2A:14-3, and must be filed within one year after the publication of the alleged libel or slander. Rumbauskas, supra, 138 N.J. at 183.

         The applicable statute of limitations for three of the four types of invasion of privacy have already been determined by our courts. Specifically, claims for invasion of privacy based on intrusion on seclusion are subject to the two-year statute of limitations imposed by N.J.S.A. 2A:14-2. Id. at 182. Claims for invasion of privacy based on placing plaintiff in a false light are subject to the one-year statute of limitations imposed by N.J.S.A. 2A:14-3. Swan, supra, 407 N.J. Super, at 122-23. Claims for invasion of privacy based on a person's name or likeness are subject to the six-year statute of limitations imposed by N.J.S.A. 2A:14-1. Canessa v. J.I. Kislak, Inc., 97 N.J.Super. 327, 355 (Law Div. 1967).

         In McGrogan v. Till, 167 N.J. 414 (2001), the Court set forth the test to be employed when determining the ...


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