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Summaries of Opinions Released in Civil Cases – November 2, 2009

November 2, 2009

The Supreme Court released opinions this morning in the following two civil cases:


In this case, the surviving spouse (Mary Miller) attempted to obtain medical records from a nursing home related to her husband’s death. The nursing home refused, citing HIPAA. Because the decedent had no will, and Mrs. Miller had not sought appointment, she was not the representative of his estate. Mrs. Miller sued, seeking the medical records, and the trial court found in her favor.

The Court of Appeals (Phipps, Johnson, and Barnes) unanimously affirmed a trial court finding that a nursing care facility was required to provide a spouse copies of her deceased husband’s medical records, rejecting the facility’s reliance on the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (“HIPAA”) to refuse to provide the records.

After oral argument, the Supreme Court affirmed the ruling of the Court of Appeals in a 6-1 opinion, but on a different basis.  Writing for the majority, Justice Carley found the O.C.G.A. 31-33-2(a)(2)(B) authorizes the living spouse to act on behalf of the deceased spouse in obtaining medical records, and that therefore, Mrs. Miller was entitled to obtain the protected health information under HIPAA.  Because there was no danger of the nursing home violating HIPAA, the Court further found the grant of injunctive relief was appropriate.

Justice Melton dissented, finding that Mrs. Miller was acting on her own behalf, not on behalf of her deceased husband, and therefore did not satisfy the requirements of HIPAA.

S09G0336. LOUIS LEVENSON, Admr. v. GERALD WORD et al.

This case involves a conversion action against a law firm. After her husband was killed, Debra Post became the administrator of his estate. Later that year, Debra was charged with the murder of her husband and hired Word & Simmons, P.C. to defend her. She paid $125,000 for her defense. After a period of time, Debra pleaded guilty to killing her husband, and the estate sought to recover the money paid by Debra to the law firm under a theory of conversion, claiming that because she was a “thief” and a “slayer,” she was unable to pass title to property owned by her husband under Georgia law.

The Court of Appeals (Ellington, Blackburn, and Miller) unanimously affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to the law firm, finding that the estate administrator had not shown the wife’s money was solely from the husband’s estate, and that even if this was true, the wife’s guilt was not established until well after the legal fees were paid.

In a unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals.  Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Hunstein found that Debra had not yet pled guilty to the murder charges and no final judgment had been entered against her.  Because she was properly the representative of the estate and not yet a murderer in the eyes of the law, she had the authority to pass good title to the money she paid the law firm.


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