Subpoena for Hospital Records for Investigation of Death of Prison Inmate Held Enforceable Notwithstanding Privacy Laws

In the matter of New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation vs. New York State Commission Of Correction, — N.E.2d —-, 2012 N.Y. Slip Op. 03571 (May 8, 2012), the Court of Appeals was called upon to decide the enforceability of a subpoena duces tecum issued by the Medical Review Board of the New York State Commission (“Commission”) to Elmhurst Hospital, operated by the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation (“HHC”) for hospital records of an inmate, Carlos Frazier, who, while in custody of New York City, died subsequent to transfers from the City facility where he was incarcerated to Elmhurst Hospital and from there to Bellevue Hospital, where he died. HHC refused to turn over the sought records on the grounds that Mr. Frazier had been treated at Elmhurst in a non-prison unit, and, in view of that circumstance, the Commission had no special entitlement to his hospital records, which HHC claimed were shielded from disclosure by the physician-patient privilege.

HHC moved to quash the subpoena. The Supreme Court granted the motion, and the Appellate Division affirmed. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the Legislature’s intent in Correction Law §47 to give the Medical Review Board authority to “investigate and review the cause and circumstances surrounding the death of any inmate of a correctional facility” trumped HIPPA medical privacy laws.

The Court aptly noted that the thoroughness of an investigation of an inmate’s death should not be impeded just because the inmate was treated in a non-prison, rather than a prison, unit of a hospital.

The Medical Review Board of the Commission is charged with investigating and reviewing the cause and circumstances surrounding the death of any inmate of a correctional facility. The Board has broad investigative powers: it is given access to any correctional facility in which an inmate has died and the authority to order an autopsy, even where one has already been performed.

At the conclusion of its post-mortem review, the Board must issue a report containing recommendations respecting the prevention of future similarly eventuated inmate deaths. The Board is separately required to report to the Commission generally on the condition of systems for the delivery of medical care to inmates of correctional facilities and where appropriate to recommend such changes as it shall deem necessary and proper to improve the quality and availability of such medical care.

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