Published June, 1988

Woods v. White, 689 F. Supp. 874 (W.D. Wis. 1988)

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin held that there is a constitutional right to privacy in one’s medical records and that this right is not relinquished automatically when a person is incarcerated. In this case, an inmate’s AIDS diagnosis was disclosed by prison medical personnel to other staff in the prison who had no need to know the inmate’s status. According to the court, the scope of the constitutional privacy right has been defined on a case-by-case basis, balancing an individual’s right to confidentiality against the government’s interest in limited disclosure. In this case, however, such a balancing test was not necessary as information about an individual’s AIDS test results is of the most personal kind and the prison medical personnel made no claim that any important public interest was served in their discussion of the inmate’s medical records. The medical staff instead asserted a defense of qualified immunity, arguing that they would not have known at that time that an inmate had a constitutional right to privacy of his personal information. However, the court found that it would have been clear to a public official in 1986 that individuals had a constitutional right to privacy in information related to AIDS. Furthermore, a qualified immunity defense can stand only if the conduct in question is part of the official’s discretionary functions. In this case, the conduct was wholly outside the officials’ sphere of responsibility, which meant that the defense of qualified immunity was not available.

It should be noted that other courts, such as the Tenth Circuit in Herring v. Keenan, 218 F.3d 1171 (10th Cir. 2000), have found that an individual’s constitutional right to privacy in his medical information, including HIV status, was not clearly established even in 1993, leading the court to conclude that a qualified immunity defense could stand in such a case.

To request a copy of this opinion, send an e-mail to and include “Resource Request” in the subject line.