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Prisoner Loses Suit Against Jail Officials for Disclosure of His Medical Condition

by Ed Lyon

Joseph Leiser was in an Illinois jail pending extradition to Coffey County, Kansas. Because Leiser had been Tased by federal marshals, Coffey County jail administrator Shannon Moore asked Illinois officials to have him thoroughly examined, including chest X-rays and a CT scan, to see if he suffered any serious injuries as a result of the Tasing.

The examination revealed that Leiser had bone lesions and possibly cancer.

Moore and Sheriff Randy Rogers told the Coffey County Hospital and Leiser’s family about his medical condition, but neglected to first obtain Leiser’s permission to share that information.

Leiser sued Moore and Rogers in state court for disclosing his medical condition without his permission in violation of state statutes and his constitutional right to privacy.

The defendants had the case removed to federal court. Refusing to exercise supplemental (pendant) jurisdiction over the state law claims, the district court ruled against Leiser on his federal claims, finding the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity.

Leiser appealed to the Tenth Circuit on the sole issue of the district court’s dismissal of his right to privacy claim.

In a detailed September 6, 2018 ruling, the appellate court first explored the concept of a constitutional privacy right, finding that under Whalen v. Roe, 429 U.S. 589 (1977), a person enjoys a constitutional right “not to have his private affairs made public by the government,” synonymously labeling this “a right to informational privacy.”

Two precedent cases from the Tenth Circuit involved government agents revealing HIV positive diagnoses during an era when “the stigma of HIV was enormous.”

Leiser’s situation was easily distinguishable from those earlier cases, though, because “the disclosure [of medical information] in this case had a plausible positive purpose – to encourage the support of family and friends – as opposed to the hostile purpose in our precedents.” Nor did his medical condition carry the stigma of diseases such as HIV.

Under the more recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in White v. Pauly, 137 S.Ct. 548 (2016), the Tenth Circuit found Leiser had failed to show that “existing precedent [did not place] the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate.” Accordingly, the district court’s order of dismissal was affirmed. See: Leiser v. Moore, 903 F.3d 1137 (10th Cir. 2018). 

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Related legal case

Leiser v. Moore