Doe v. Delie, 257 F.3d 209 (3d Cir. 2001)

Court and Agency Decisions and Orders (including case law)

In this opinion, the Third Circuit holds that prison inmates have a constitutionally protected right to privacy regarding the confidentiality of their medical conditions, in particular HIV-status. The court held that prison officials may impinge on this right only to the extent that their actions are reasonably related to legitimate penological interests. Prison officials trespassed on plaintiff Doe’s right to privacy when staff informed corrections staff who were escorting Doe of his condition; medical staff kept the clinic room door open when discussing Doe’s HIV status with him; and nurses announced his medication loudly enough for others to hear. The court did not reach the question of whether this infringement was reasonably related to a legitimate penological interest, however, because this the court concluded that prisoners’ right to privacy in this context was not clearly established at the time of the incident in 1995, and thus the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity. Judge Nygaard’s dissent disagrees, arguing that the right was clearly established at the time of the incident based on case law, a state statute protecting HIV information from disclosure, and the Department of Corrections’ previous agreement to protect the privacy of prisoners’ HIV-related materials in a separate case settlement. It is important to note, however, that this case clearly establishes inmates’ constitutional right to confidentiality of HIV status, and thus staff actions after this opinion was issued presumably would not be entitled to qualified immunity.

An earlier Second Circuit case, Powell v. Schriver, 175 F.3d 107 (2d Cir. 1999), also holds that inmates have a constitutional right to the confidentiality of HIV status, but that this right was not clearly established as of 1991. Moreover, it holds that such disclosure could violate an inmate’s Eighth Amendment right, and that this right was clearly established as of 1991.

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