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My attorney violated attorney-client privilege by sharing medical information with others without permission. What do I do?

Olympia, WA |
Filed under: Professional ethics

My attorney shared medical information with another attorney in her firm. My case had been over for more than a year so there was no reason to be discussing anything related to me or my situation. This second attorney was not involved in my case. This breach of confidentiality was inadvertently shared with me, in writing, by a partner in the firm. This greatly angers me. I sent a letter to a partner in her firm questioning her ethics but I feel that nothing will be done. Ethical lawyers don't do this and I want to make sure that people know that they risk their rights to confidentiality by using the attorney in question. However, I do not believe in using social media to resolve issues.
What recourse do I have? Should I file a complaint with the State Board? Please let me know

Attorney Answers 2

Posted

It is generally not considered unethical for a lawyer in a law firm to share client-related information with other lawyers in the same law firm. Although you might interact with just one lawyer in the law firm, the attorney-client privilege is not intended to prevent lawyers in the same law firm from sharing information. This principle is recognized in the ethical rules in Washington (the Washington Rules of Professional Conduct): the comments to Rule 1.6, which covers protecting client confidential information, states that "Lawyers in a firm may, in the course of the firm's practice, disclose to each other information relating to a client of the firm, unless the client has instructed that particular
information be confined to specified lawyers."

Lawyers frequently discuss their cases with colleagues in the same firm, because it is advantageous either to the specific client to have the benefit of the skills and perspectives of these other lawyers or because a lawyer's experience in representing one client may provide valuable guidance to another lawyer in the firm representing a different client. In this sense, it is no different from the way doctors in the same practice share information about their patients with one another -- both current and future patients benefit from these discussions.

I can understand that a person might wish to keep certain information completely confidential, so that it is not even shared between lawyers in the same firm. If you made such a request of the lawyer and she agreed to the condition, then I think your anger and concern about the lawyer's behavior is well-founded. If you and your lawyer never had a specific conversation about this level of privacy, during or at the end of your case, then I tend to think this was not an ethical violation.

The one caveat I would add to all of this is that if what you suspect was going on was simply a gratuitous disclosure of your private medical information -- something like sharing embarrassing details for no good reason and without any respect for your privacy and dignity -- then I think it might be worth contacting the managing partner of the law firm to request that (a) your personal information never be discussed or shared in the future, and (b) the lawyer in question be provided some pointed counseling on the difference between appropriate and inappropriate disclosures within a law practice.

I don't think I have enough information to opine on whether you should file a complaint with the Washington State Bar Association. The WSBA website has complaint forms, and anyone may file a complaint against a lawyer for unethical conduct. The WSBA web site also has useful information on what the process is after a complaint is filed and what discipline the bar can impose.

Every person and every case is unique and the information I provide on this forum is not a substitute for consulting with an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction to obtain appropriate legal advice specific to your situation. Any information I have provided is of a general nature. It is not legal advice and should not be construed as such. I am unable to give you legal advice on this forum. Further, I am not your lawyer and by providing information on this forum, I am not agreeing to enter an attorney-client relationship with you. Communications on this forum are not privileged or confidential and should not be treated as such. It is unwise to disclose information of a confidential or personal nature on this forum. If you are unable to afford an attorney in a criminal matter, the court should be able to appoint counsel for you at no cost to you. Also, most state bar associations can provide contact information for free or low-cost legal advice.

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Rixon Charles Rafter III

Rixon Charles Rafter III

Posted

Excellent counsel.

Posted

Sharing information within the firm is not a breach of confidentiality, because the firm as a whole represents you, although you may primarily work with a single attorney. If someone in the firm shared information with someone outside the firm, that would be a breach. All firms do this. Its not unethical at all, in fact its beneficial to clients. Attorneys join a firm so they can work together with other lawyers, bounce ideas off of each other, help each other with many aspects of the case, rely on each other for advice and help each other with research, drafting motions, covering court hearings, etc. If one attorney is sick or quits, someone else needs to be able to jump in and take over. Paralegals need to be able to talk to clients, set appointments, mail pleadings, etc. All this involves confidential information. The firm needs to share this information to be successful and function properly.

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Asker

Posted

I do understand that attorney's work together. When my case was active my attorney asked if she could speak to other attorney's both in and out of the firm, although she didn't use my name. My issue is that this breach occurred 16 months after my case had concluded. There was no reason to speak to another attorney, no reason to divulge medical information, and definitely no reason to use my name when speaking to the attorney. If she had a legitimate reasons to share my medical information with another attorney 16 months after my case had concluded then I should have been asked first. I tried to ask her why to find out if there was a legitimate reason for this issue but she has chose not to respond which in my mind makes her look guilty of more than poor judgement. I am not seeking some sort of financial or legal settlement. What I really want is an explanation and an apology. But that seems to be out of the question as well.

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