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Doe v. Medlantic Health Care Group

January 16, 2003


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CA-3889-97) (Hon. Leonard Braman, Trial Judge)

Before Ruiz and Reid, Associate Judges, and Belson, Senior Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Associate Judge Ruiz

Argued October 3, 2001

Opinion dissenting in part by Senior Judge BELSON

A jury awarded a verdict to John Doe against Medlantic Health Care Group, Inc ("Medlantic") in the amount of $250,000 for breach of confidential relationship. *fn1 The trial court subsequently granted Medlantic's motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the grounds that Doe's action was filed outside the one-year statute of limitations. On appeal, Doe claims the trial court erred in granting judgment to Medlantic because it substituted its own view for that of the jury on the question of when the cause of action accrued, and erroneously applied a one-year statute of limitations to the tort of breach of confidential relationship, which he claims is governed by a three-year limitations period. Medlantic filed a cross-appeal, asserting that the trial court improperly admitted certain hearsay statements, and should have granted Medlantic's motion for judgment because Doe failed to prove a prima facie case of breach of confidentiality. In addition, Medlantic claims it was entitled to a new trial because the verdict was against the weight of the evidence and based on the misconduct of plaintiff's counsel. We conclude that the trial court erred in directing a verdict on the issue of accrual and find no merit to the cross-appeal. Thus, we reverse the entry of judgment for appellee and remand with instructions that the jury's verdict for appellant be reinstated and judgment entered for appellant.



In the spring of 1996, Doe held two jobs: by day he worked for a federal agency and at night he worked as a janitor for a company that contracted to clean the Department of State. Although Doe had been diagnosed with HIV in August of 1985, he had not told anyone at his janitorial job that he was HIV positive. One of Doe's co-workers in the evenings at the State Department was Tijuana Goldring, who also held a day position at the Washington Hospital Center ("WHC") *fn2 as a temporary receptionist. On April 13, 1996, Doe went to WHC's emergency room suffering from severe headaches, nausea and high fever. He was discharged on April 16, 1996, but was unable to return to work for approximately two weeks because of these health problems.

On April 23, 1996, while still absent from work, Doe returned to WHC for a follow-up clinic visit after his discharge from the hospital. Knowing that Goldring worked at WHC, Doe stopped by the receptionist's desk to pay her a "courtesy call." After a brief conversation, Goldring asked him for the correct spelling of his uncommon last name because she wanted to send him a get well card. Doe testified that he did not think Goldring's request was odd and complied with the request as it was not unusual to get such a card from co-workers after having been out sick. Doe never received a card from Goldring, but did receive a card from fellow co-workers at the State Department with $50 enclosed.

Sometime in April of 1996, before Doe returned to work, Goldring told another co-worker at the State Department, Donnell Fuell, that John Doe "had that shit," meaning HIV or AIDS. When Fuell questioned her veracity, Goldring replied that it was "for real," and told Fuell she "got it from the hospital." Fuell knew that Goldring worked at WHC during the day.

Doe stipulated that within "a couple of days" of his conversation with Goldring at WHC on April 23, he learned that his co-workers at State knew of his AIDS diagnosis. On April 25, 1996, still before he returned to work, Doe went to the State Department to collect his paycheck, and he encountered co-workers Derek Nelson and Gordon Bannister outside the building. Both were laughing as Doe approached, and Nelson said to him, "Hey motherfucker, I hear you're dying of AIDS." Doe was "stunned" by this comment, but tried to cover his shock by laughing it off, saying, "Do I look like I'm dying?" before entering the building. Doe did not ask where Nelson had gotten this information, and Nelson did not tell him. As he left the building later that same day, Doe saw Fuell, who told him that Tijuana was "going around telling everybody you got AIDS." Fuell did not tell him how Goldring knew this information. Doe had never been teased by co-workers before that Friday about having AIDS, and that weekend he called Willie Jones, a co-worker and friend from the State Department, to ask if she had heard any rumors at work that he had AIDS. Jones stated she had. Doe did not ask Jones where she had heard the rumors or if Goldring was the source.

On Monday, April 29, 1999, when Doe returned to work at the State Department, he confronted Goldring "one on one" and asked her if she was responsible for spreading the rumors about him. When confronted with what Fuell had said, she didn't seem surprised, and told him "I wouldn't do you like that" in a serious manner. Doe testified at trial that he believed Goldring because he had a "good relationship" with her and considered her a friend. Later that same day, when Doe saw Fuell and Goldring together, he told Fuell that Goldring "said she didn't say that." Looking at Goldring, Fuell asked "What's he talking about?" Goldring responded "I don't know what he's talking about," and they "brushed it off" and went back to work. Because of Fuell's and Goldring's denials, Doe concluded it was "a Donnell Fuell joke," and "left it alone."

Edward Coles, a friend of Doe for twenty-five years, testified at trial that Doe called him about the incidents at work "right after he got out of the hospital" in April of 1996. The following exchange took place between Doe's counsel and Coles at trial:

Q: Did you learn about - did there come a time when you learned about [Doe's] problem with Tijuana Goldring and Washington Hospital Center?

A: He told me about the incident. When it first occurred, in the sense of after having come back to work from the illness and being approached by different innuendoes and people approaching him.

Q: You don't have to tell us sort of a blow-by-blow what he told you, but did he describe to you the problems he had with the Washington Hospital Center and Tijuana Goldring?

A: Yes, he did.

According to Coles, while Doe did not go into a lot of detail about his feelings about what was happening to him "he was angry about what happened."

Doe testified that his time at work after April 25, was "like a living hell," as he was teased, ridiculed, pitied and scorned. Co-workers who had previously eaten with him now shunned him, and he was the object of snide remarks, stares, and unwanted attention. This included crass comments such as, Doe has "that faggot thing," and "[don't] eat [Doe's] food."

On May 20, 1996, as Doe approached the time clock at the State Department where a number of co-workers, including Goldring, were waiting to process their time cards before leaving, Fuell asked Doe about his health. Doe responded that he was fine, whereupon Fuell turned to Goldring and stated, "How do you like that T [Goldring's nickname]?" Goldring had an "intense look on her face, a look of 'I don't believe he said that' type of look." She did not respond, but motioned with her hands as though to tell Fuell to keep quiet. Doe testified that it was at this moment he realized that Goldring was the source of the rumors, and suspected that she may have seen his medical records at the hospital. On cross-examination at trial, he testified that:

Prior to that point, for all I know, it could have been a Donnell Fuell joke. It could have been cause he's known to be a jokester. I confronted Tijuana. She said she didn't do that, and I left it alone. But the ongoing abuse and joking and general teasing of me, I was trying to get a handle on this thing, and it wasn't until the 20th [of May] that it was confirmed to me in my mind that this woman actually did this.

The following day, on May 21, 1996, Doe called WHC and spoke with the vice president of personnel and human resources to ask if the hospital had a policy on employees who disseminate confidential medical information. Doe explained what had happened and gave Goldring's name. The vice-president said she would talk to Goldring and told Doe that this type of dissemination was against hospital policy and the laws of the District of Columbia. She referred him to the hospital's "risk management" department.

Doe filed a complaint against Medlantic and Goldring on May 20, 1997, alleging tort claims of invasion of privacy based on Goldring's disclosure and breach of confidential relationship based on WHC's negligence in permitting Goldring's access to confidential patient information. After Goldring was dismissed from the case, it proceeded to trial against Medlantic. The jury found Medlantic liable for breach of confidential relationship and awarded damages in the amount of $250,000. The jury found against Doe on the invasion of privacy claim because Goldring's disclosure was not within the scope of Goldring's employment with WHC. The jury was instructed on the statute of limitations and accrual of actions. The verdict form had a separate question on the statute of limitations, *fn3 and in answering this question, the jury explicitly found that the lawsuit was filed within the one-year limitations period.

Medlantic then filed a motion for judgment as a matter of law, alleging, among other assertions, that Doe's breach of confidentiality claim was time-barred by the applicable one-year statute of limitations. The trial court concluded that the statute of limitations expired for both claims before the suit was filed, even with application of the discovery rule, reasoning that the limitations period commenced on April 25, 1996, when Fuell first told Doe that Goldring started the rumors. According to the trial court, "[t]hat Fuell's credibility may have been suspect does not forestall inquiry; instead, it demanded inquiry because it was 'possible' that Fuell was correct." Moreover, the court noted that "plaintiff's own evidence unequivocally demonstrates that Fuell was convincingly corroborated at the very time he told plaintiff of Goldring on April 25," because only Goldring was connected to the hospital where Doe had been treated, Goldring had access "albeit unauthorized" to the general medical records, and Goldring's request for Doe's name was a "transparent ploy" to gain access to his records. The trial court particularly emphasized Coles' testimony that Doe was angry at WHC and Goldring in April 1996, as well as Doe's perceived failure to ask Jones whether Goldring was the source of the rumors. On the basis of this evidence, the court found that "it is clear that by the end of April there were more than ample circumstances to put a reasonable person in Doe's position" on notice that Goldring's guilt was substantial. The court observed that it did not matter "that a jury could reasonably conclude that the plaintiff acted with due diligence by contacting the hospital within 25 days of hearing of the first attribution of the rumor," because as a matter of law Doe's claims arose before May 20, 1996. Judgment was therefore entered in favor of Medlantic.

Doe filed a motion for reconsideration pursuant to Superior Court Civil Rule 59 (e), seeking to alter and amend the judgment on the basis that the three-year statute of limitations applied. The court denied Doe's motion on the grounds that "it was accepted and understood by all [parties] that the applicable time limitation governing all claims was one year," and that under the discovery rule and based upon the record of this case, "the commencement of any claim against Goldring necessarily triggered a claim against the hospital, for the hospital's records were the only source to account for Goldring's knowledge of plaintiff's condition."


Statute of Limitations

A claim usually accrues for statute of limitations purposes when injury occurs, but in cases where "'the relationship between the fact of injury and the alleged tortious conduct [is] obscure,' this court determines when the claim accrues through application of the discovery rule, i.e., the statute of limitations will not run until plaintiffs know or reasonably should have known that they suffered injury due to the defendants' wrongdoing." Mullin v. Washington Free Weekly, Inc., 785 A.2d 296, 298-99 (D.C. 2001) (quoting Colbert v. Georgetown Univ., 641 A.2d 469, 472-73 (D.C. 1994) (en banc)). When the discovery rule applies, a cause of action accrues when the claimant knows or by the exercise of reasonable diligence should know of (1) the injury, (2) its cause in fact, and (3) some evidence of wrongdoing. See Bussineau v. President and Dirs. of Georgetown College, 518 A.2d 423, 435 (D.C. 1986). "The law of limitations requires only that the plaintiff have inquiry notice of the existence of a cause of action." Hendel v. World Plan Executive Council, 705 A.2d 656, 661 (D.C. 1997). We have explained that a cause of action accrues for statute of limitations purposes when the plaintiff is deemed to be on inquiry notice, "because if she had met her duty to act reasonably under the circumstances in investigating matters affecting her affairs, such an investigation, if conducted, would have led to actual notice." Diamond v. Davis, 680 A.2d 364, 372 (D.C. 1996) (per curiam). Thus, inquiry notice is "that notice which a plaintiff would have possessed after due investigation." Id. (emphasis added).

Although what constitutes the accrual of a cause of action is a question of law, when accrual actually occurred in a particular case is a question of fact for the fact finder. See Cevenini v. Archbishop of Washington, 707 A.2d 768, 770-71 (D.C. 1998). This is particularly so where the discovery rule applies because "[t]he critical question in assessing the existence vel non of inquiry notice is whether the plaintiff exercised reasonable diligence under the circumstances in acting or failing to act on whatever information was available to him." Ray v. Queen, 747 A.2d 1137, 1141-42 (D.C. 2000). As we have observed, "[i]n all cases to which the discovery rule applies the inquiry is highly fact-bound and requires an evaluation of all of the plaintiff's circumstances." Diamond, 680 A.2d at 372. "The relevant circumstances include, but are not limited to, the conduct and misrepresentations of the defendant, and the reasonableness of the plaintiff's reliance on the defendant's conduct and misrepresentations." Id. Thus, although summary judgment on the issue of when accrual occurred may be granted in cases when there is no disputed issue of fact, see, e.g., Hendel, 705 A.2d at 661 (plaintiff placed on notice when defendant made representations which "any reasonable person would recognize as contrary to human experience and, indeed, to the laws of physics"); Colbert, 641 A.2d at 474 (plaintiff conceded knowing of injury and hospital's negligence and disputed only notice of extent of resulting injury), we have held that summary judgment is improper when there is a disputed question about plaintiff's diligence in investigating a possible cause of action, see Ezra Co. v. Psychiatric Inst. of Washington D.C., 687 A.2d 587, 593 (D.C. 1996) (whether defendant's fraudulent concealment precluded plaintiff from further inquiry into a possible cause of action).

Even where a plaintiff might know, or be deemed to know, of wrongdoing on the part of one defendant, accrual of his action against another, unknown defendant responsible for the same harm is not automatic, "unless the two defendants were closely connected, such as in a superior-subordinate relationship." Diamond, 680 A.2d at 380. Whether the relationship of the defendants is sufficiently close to cause accrual is also a question of fact, and notice may be imputed to the plaintiff by the same standard of reasonable diligence under the circumstances. See id. In some circumstances, the relationship of the defendants along with other ...

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