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January 14, 2011

Not all “serious medical conditions” are protected by a constitutional right to privacy

Not all “serious medical conditions” are protected by a constitutional right to privacy
Matson v. Board of Education of the School District of City of New York USCA, 2nd Circuit, 09-3773-cv

Dorrit Matson appealed a judgment by a United States District Court for the Southern District of New York judge dismissing her civil rights action brought under 42 U.S.C. §1983. Matson alleged that the School District had violated her right to privacy by publicly disclosing that she suffers from fibromyalgia.*

The District Court held that Matson did not have a constitutionally-protected privacy right with respect to her medical condition. The Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court’s ruling.

Although Matson contended that fibromyalgia is a “serious medical condition” that falls within the ambit of constitutionally-protected privacy, the Circuit Court, conceding that it was a serious medical condition, explained that “A general medical determination or acknowledgment that a disease is serious does not give rise ipso facto to a constitutionally-protected privacy right.”

The court distinguished fibromyalgia from other diseases that courts have recognized as having a constitutionally-protected privacy right such as the medical condition of individuals with HIV [see Doe v. City of New York, 15 F.3d 264,] or a “profound psychiatric disorder” [see Powell v. Schriver, 175 F.3d 107].

The Circuit Court commented that case law indicates that “the interest in the privacy of medical information will vary with the condition” and that a constitutional right to privacy for some diseases is greater than for others….”

Also noted was that in considering claims that a constitutional right of privacy attaches to various serious medical conditions, the Second Circuit considers the claim “on a case-by-case basis” and in so doing, the Circuit examines “all the relevant factors that cut both in favor of and against extending privacy protection to such medical conditions.”

NYPPL Comments: The Circuit Court of Appeals' decision notes that a constitutional right to medical privacy may be characterized as a right to “confidentiality,” which “includes the right to protection regarding information about the state of one’s health,” citing Doe, 15 F.3d at 267.

The court then continues: “We reasoned that this is 'especially true with regard to those infected with HIV or living with AIDS, considering the unfortunately unfeeling attitude among many in this society toward those coping with the disease'… In particular, we considered that '[a]n individual revealing that she is HIV seropositive potentially exposes herself [or himself] not to understanding or compassion but to discrimination and intolerance.'”

Assuming, but not conceding, that there is a “constitutionally protected right to privacy” with respect on one’s medical condition, it would seem that such a right would obtain be the condition a hangnail, a heart defect or being seropositive for HIV and that the attitude of society toward those coping with such a medical condition is irrelevant. In other words, the protection obtains regardless of the nature of the medical problem or society’s reaction to those suffering the condition.

* The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases of the National Institutes of Health, United States Department of Health and Human Services, defines fibromyalgia as “a disorder that causes muscle pain and fatigue.”

The decision is posted on the Internet at:

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