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Lawanda York, Plaintiff v. John Mchugh

March 27, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Beryl A. Howell


Plaintiff Lawanda York, a former employee of the U.S. Army Reserve, initiated this case after learning that personal medical information pertaining to her was placed by her supervisor on a shared network drive that could be accessed by other employees. The plaintiff is suing the Office of the Army Reserve*fn1 pursuant to the Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552a, to seek redress for the pain and embarrassment caused by the release of her private information. Pending before the Court is the defendant's motion for summary judgment, which argues that the plaintiff cannot establish a violation of the Privacy Act. For the reasons explained below, the Court agrees and the defendant's motion for summary judgment is GRANTED.


A.Factual Background

From May 2005 to March 2007, plaintiff Lawanda York was employed in the Office of the Chief of Army Reserve, Army Reserve Communications ("ARC") Directorate, Outreach Branch as a GS-13 Public Affairs Specialist. Def.'s Statement of Material Facts ("Def.'s SMF"), ECF No. 33-2, ¶ 1. On July 26, 2006, the plaintiff met with her supervisor, Lieutenant Colonel Laurel Hubred, for counseling and to review the plaintiff's job description and basic responsibilities. Id. ¶ 4. During the course of the meeting, the plaintiff indicated that she had thoughts of suicide, was on anti-depressants, and made other statements regarding her mental condition that caused Lt. Col. Hubred concern. Id. ¶ 6. Following the meeting, Lt. Col. Hubred prepared a memorandum for her files and also sought guidance from her supervisor, Colonel Dorothy Perkins, on how to handle the situation. Id. ¶ 6.

Sometime thereafter, Colonel Perkins and Sheila Bailey, a human resources specialist, met with the plaintiff to discuss her mental health and the availability of Army counselors to assist the plaintiff.*fn2 Id. ¶ 9. Although the specifics of what transpired at that meeting are in dispute, after the meeting Colonel Perkins prepared a memorandum (the "Perkins Memo") detailing the subject of the meeting for her records. Id. ¶ 10. Colonel Perkins saved the Perkins Memo on her private workplace computer. Id.

On December 2, 2006, Colonel Perkins was deployed to Iraq for six months. Id. ¶ 11. In order to preserve the files and make them available to her supervisors while deployed, Colonel Perkins' complied with an order to move her electronic files from her computer to the ARC Directorate shared drive, known as the "J drive." Id. ¶ 13; Def.'s Second Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 33, Ex. B, Dep. Col. Perkins, 20:11-21:18. Along with Colonel Perkins' other electronic files, the Perkins Memo and other documents with the plaintiff's name "York" in the filename were also placed on the J drive.*fn3 Def.'s SMF, ¶ 14; Compl., Ex. 2. These files were contained in a sub-folder called "COL Perkins' files," and were not indexed or grouped in any particular manner. Def.'s SMF, ¶ 15. The documents concerning the plaintiff were mixed in with all of the other documents in the "COL Perkins' files" folder, and were not otherwise separated or distinguished. Id. ¶ 15.

The shared J drive on which the Perkins Memo was uploaded is accessible only to those Army Reserve employees who are given permission to access the drive, which both parties agree includes at least the other members of the ARC staff. Id. ¶ 16; Pl.'s SMF ¶ 16; see also Decl. Felicia Davis Batte, ECF No. 6-2, ¶ 4 (indicating that the shared drive is only accessible to those who "can authenticate to the Army Reserve domain"). The defendant asserts that there is "no indication that any individual with access to the J drive accessed this document or any other documents concerning Plaintiff other than Plaintiff herself and Ms. Linda Moore who was asked by Plaintiff to access the document." Def.'s SMF ¶ 17. The plaintiff disputes the defendant's characterization of the facts. Although she cannot identify any individual who viewed the files containing her private information, the plaintiff states that Master Sergeant Rodriguez, another Army Reserve employee, must have known about the Perkins Memo because "around January 2007" he told her: "You know, people know your business. You really should check into it."

Pl.'s SMF ¶ 17; Pl.'s Opp'n Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 36, at 6-7. Neither party contends or provides any direct testimony from any individual who claims to have accessed the files containing the plaintiff's personal information, with the exception of Linda Moore who accessed the files after the plaintiff discovered them and upon the plaintiff's request.

On March 14, 2007, the plaintiff conducted a search for the term "standards" on the shared J drive in order to find documents relating to a work assignment. Def.'s Second Mot. Summ. J., ECF No. 33, Ex. A, Dep. Lawanda York, 22:16-23:6. The search yielded a number of documents, including documents relating to the plaintiff's comments to Col. Perkins. Id. Upon learning that documents referencing the plaintiff's personal medical and mental health were on the shared J drive, the plaintiff instructed Ms. Moore, a work colleague, to "[s]ee if you can find anything on me on the shared drive" in order to confirm that the documents were accessible by other employees, which they were. Id. at 25:20-25:25.

After learning that her personal information was accessible to other employees, the plaintiff states that she became visibly upset and physically ill. Compl. ¶¶ 13-16. According to the plaintiff, the trauma resulting from the alleged disclosure of her personal information caused her to miss work and contact her therapist, who became concerned for her well-being and prescribed her medication. Id.

On March 15, 2007, the plaintiff sent an email to multiple ARC personnel demanding that the documents pertaining to her be removed from the J drive. Pl.'s SMF ¶ 18; Def.'s SMF ¶ 18. That same day, the files were removed and placed on a compact disk for Colonel Perkins' use upon her return from Iraq. Pl.'s SMF ¶¶ 19, 20.

B.Procedural History

On January 9, 2009, the plaintiff filed a Complaint against the U.S. Army Reserve, alleging that the disclosure of her personal medical information violated the Privacy Act. See 5 U.S.C §§ 552a(b), (g)(1)(D). The plaintiff alleges this alleged wrongful disclosure "humiliated and embarrassed" her and negatively affected her medical health. In redress for her injuries, the plaintiff seeks "actual damages," plus attorney's fees and costs. Compl. at 4.

In response to the Complaint, on April 6, 2009, the defendant moved to dismiss this action, or, in the alternative, for summary judgment, arguing that (1) the protections of the Privacy Act do not apply because the shared J drive was not a "system of records"; (2) the plaintiff failed to allege actual disclosure; and (3) the plaintiff's alleged injuries were not caused by any such disclosure. Def.'s Mot. Dismiss, ECF No. 6. On March 22, 2010, the Court denied the defendant's motion to dismiss and denied without prejudice the defendant's motion for summary judgment. Mem. Op., ECF No. 18 (Kollar-Kotelly, J.). Specifically, the Court withheld judgment on whether the J drive was a "system of records" within the meaning of the Privacy Act, stating that "this issue cannot be resolved without resorting to matters outside the pleadings" and the plaintiff was entitled to ...

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