MIAMI – A Miami judge has ruled that litigation privilege protects three law firms in a case where names of HIV patients were not redacted from press releases sent to the media.
On June 28, U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams found that litigation privilege, which is immunity given for certain acts and statements said in connection with the pursuit of litigation protects the law firms, is not grounds for a suit. The three law firms neglected to omit patient names in a whistle-blower lawsuit against the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, based in California.
In her ruling, Williams threw out Florida state laws of conversion and tortious interference claims against three law firms, which included Cohen Milstein of Palm Beach Gardens, Kaiser Law Firm of New York and Salpeter Gitkin of Fort Lauderdale.
Williams found that the three firms’ actions were protected by litigation privilege and part of the regular judicial proceedings.
Theodore Leopold, a defendant in the case who works at the Cohen Milstein firm, did not return calls from the Florida Record seeking comments.
Williams also allowed claims against the three law firms’ clients - three former AIDS Healthcare employees, to move forward pending the resolution of their whistle-blower lawsuit.
The AIDS Healthcare Foundation stated that the former employees stole sensitive information from the organization and that their lawyers helped them. The foundation also stated that the release of the HIV patients’ names made the foundation more vulnerable to possible lawsuits.
Williams ruled, however, that even though the lawyers possessed the information and the fact that Cohen Milstein released it in a press release means it becomes public record and both were related to a judicial proceeding.
The AIDS Healthcare Foundation, in the case, argued that the state’s litigation privilege had a press release/media exception based on a previous case. That case, a 2nd District Court of Appeal case, found immunity did not apply to an attorney who posted about a pending case on his website.
Williams said that previous case did not apply since Cohen Milstein distributed its press release before the law suit was served.
The AIDS Healthcare Foundation is pleased that the court recognized that not omitting patient information is a problem.
“AIDS Healthcare Foundation is pleased that it will be able to litigate and vindicate its claims against the defendants for properly taking and disclosing confidential information of innocent third parties,” Tom Myers, of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, told the Florida Record.
The organization is hopeful it will be able to set right any harm caused by the releasing of the information.
“We hope this will serve as a cautionary tale for attorneys,” Myers said.
Many states believe that litigation privilege doesn’t apply to lawyers who send information to reporters and offer unsolicited thoughts.
“We hope (the decision) makes sure confidential information stays confidential,” Myers said.