The Indiana Court of Appeals has affirmed that Meridian Health Services was in contempt of court when it failed to provide a patient’s father with her health records after a subpoena ordered the health services provider to do so.
In Meridian Health Services Corporation v. Thomas Martin Bell, 71A04-1511-DR-2005, Thomas Bell contacted Meridian in March 2015 and requested his daughter K.B.’s therapy records in reference to an ongoing domestic relations matter with his ex-wife, Angela Bell, who had agreed to a parenting schedule for K.B. that gave her mother primary physical custody.
Meridian initially told Thomas Bell that he would have to submit a signed medical release to access his daughter’s records, then later denied him the records based on a letter from K.B.’s physician that said releasing the records would have a negative impact on her ability to speak freely in her therapy sessions. Meridian’s counsel said it would only release the records if Thomas Bell produced a court order.
Angela Bell then filed a motion to suspend her ex-husband’s parenting time, citing emotional abuse against K.B. His parenting time was reduced to phone contact until an evidentiary hearing was held on July 21, 2015. To prepare for that hearing Thomas Bell served a notice of deposition on K.B.’s therapist and a subpoena for the therapist to produce her complete file related to her time with K.B.
Meridian filed a motion to quash and a motion for protective order on July 13, saying that federal law prohibited it from releasing K.B.’s records without a court order. K.B.’s therapist failed to appear for her deposition on July 16, so Thomas Bell filed a motion for contempt of court.
K.B.’s physician and therapist each testified at a hearing in St. Joseph Superior Court on Sept. 8, 2015, that they believed releasing K.B.’s records would have a negative impact on her therapy sessions. However, the court denied Meridian’s motions to quash the order and for a protective order a week later.
The trial court said that because Thomas Bell shared legal custody of K.B. with his ex-wife, there was no court order limiting his access to her records. However, the judge also admonished both Thomas and Angela Bell for not to let their daughter know that they had access to her records. Meridian filed a motion to correct error on Sept. 25, saying the trial court’s interpretation of laws governing access to medical records conflicted with the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
On Sept. 29, Thomas Bell served a second deposition notice and subpoena on K.B.’s therapist to appear on Oct. 2. He also filed a petition for attorney fees. Meridian filed a motion to stay the proceedings pending a rule on the motion to correct error and also asked for an emergency hearing, which could not be granted before the deposition. Thus, Meridian gave K.B.’s records directly to the trial court on Oct. 2, but asked that they remained sealed until the pending motions were resolved.
After a hearing on Oct. 6, the trial court made K.B.’s records available for in-camera review. Thomas Bell also filed a verified affidavit for attorney fees totaling nearly $5,900 that day. The court granted the petition for attorney fees based on its decision to deny Meridian’s motion to quash and motion for protective order, and ordered the health services provider to pay Martin Bell’s counsel $6,279.
Meridian appealed, saying that it was justified in challenging his discovery request based on federal and state statutes relating to mental health records.
But in its opinion Wednesday, the Indiana Court of Appeals wrote that there was no order in place that limited Thomas Bell’s access to his daughter’s records as a noncustodial parent, and no order was ever requested by Meridian or Angela Bell. Thus, Thomas Bell was entitled to his daughter’s records.
Further, the appellate court wrote that although Meridian did initially have a right to deny Thomas Bell’s access to the records based on HIPAA laws, that right was waived once the matter went to court.
Although the Indiana Court of Appeals wrote that it understood Meridian was trying to protect K.B. when it did not comply with the order to release her files, it also said that the therapist’s failure to appear at depositions and the act of giving the records directly to the court under seal rather than to Thomas Bell interfered with the trial court’s management of the issue. Thus, the attorney fees sanctions was justified.