OSHA Helping Whistleblowers Win $$$ Faster With New Expedited Case Pilot Program

August 17, 2016

Employers beware.  U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) is testing a new “Expedited Case Processing Pilot” program in its Western Region that it hopes will make it even easier for whistleblowers to extort big settlements or recover big judgements by bringing whistleblower complaints under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (Act).

OSHA enforces the whistleblower provisions of 22 statutes protecting employees who report violations of various airline, commercial motor carrier, consumer product, environmental, financial reform, food safety, health care reform, nuclear, pipeline, worker safety, public transportation agency, railroad, maritime and securities laws.

OSHA acknowledges that OSHA’s investigation process can take time, and complainants may be able to receive a determination more quickly without losing their rights to a hearing by electing to expedite OSHA’s processing of their claims.

The “Expedited Case Processing Pilot” allows a complainant covered by certain statutes to get their claim into court faster by asking OSHA to cease its investigation and issue findings for the department’s Office of Administrative Law Judges to consider. The move is possible only if the case meets certain criteria. Administrative law judges may order the same remedies as OSHA, including back pay, compensatory damages, punitive damages where authorized, attorneys’ fees and reinstatement.

Barbara Goto, OSHA’s regional administrator in San Francisco says the  “ultimate goal” of the program is to bring about “quicker resolution for whistleblowers and their employers regarding claims of retaliation for reporting safety and other concerns on the job.”

Once a complainant requests expedited processing, the case will be assessed for the following criteria:

  • The claim is filed under a statute that allows for de novo review by an administrative law judge.
  • Depending on the statute, 30 or 60 days have passed from the date the complainant first filed with the claim with OSHA.
  • OSHA has interviewed the complainant.
  • Federal investigators have evaluated the complaint and the complainant’s interview to determine if the basic elements of a retaliation claim exist.
  • Both the complainant and the respondent have had the opportunity to submit written responses, meet with an OSHA investigator and present statements from witnesses.
  • The complainant has received a copy of the respondent’s submissions and had an opportunity to respond.

Once OSHA officials determine that these criteria are met, they will evaluate the claim to determine – based on the information gathered up to the date of the complainant’s request for expedited processing – whether reasonable cause exists to believe that a violation of the statute occurred. OSHA officials will then take one of three actions: dismiss the claim and inform the complainant of the right to proceed before an administrative law judge; issue merit findings as expeditiously as possible; or deny the request.   

The effect will be bad news for employers.  It will allow whistleblowers to move their claims against employers quicker and more cost effectively  forward and make it harder for employers to stop unreasonable claims using the administrative process.  As a result, the already huge threat employers face from OSHA whistleblower claims will be even bigger.

Employers concerned with these risks should both ungraded their safety, employee discipline and other risk management and compliance efforts AND communicate their opposition to the pilot to OSHA and Congress. 

About The Author

Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a noted Texas-based management lawyer and consultant, author, lecture and policy advocate, recognized for her nearly 30-years of cutting edge management work as among the “Top Rated Labor & Employment Lawyers in Texas” by LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® and as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” for her work in the field of “Tax: Erisa & Employee Benefits” and “Health Care” by D Magazine.

Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, past Chair and current committee Co-Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) RPTE Section Employee Benefits Group, Vice Chair of the ABA Tort & Insurance Practice Section Employee Benefits Committee, former Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, a former ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Council Representative and , Ms. Stamer helps management manage.

Ms. Stamer’s legal and management consulting work throughout her nearly 30-year career has focused on helping organizations and their management use the law and process to manage people, process, compliance, operations and risk. Highly valued for her rare ability to find pragmatic client-centric solutions by combining her detailed legal and operational knowledge and experience with her talent for creative problem-solving, Ms. Stamer helps public and private, domestic and international businesses, governments, and other organizations and their leaders manage their employees, vendors and suppliers, and other workforce members, customers and other’ performance, compliance, compensation and benefits, operations, risks and liabilities, as well as to prevent, stabilize and cleanup workforce and other legal and operational crises large and small that arise in the course of operations.

Ms. Stamer works with businesses and their management, employee benefit plans, governments and other organizations deal with all aspects of human resources and workforce, internal controls and regulatory compliance, change management and other performance and operations management and compliance. She supports her clients both on a real time, “on demand” basis and with longer term basis to deal with daily performance management and operations, emerging crises, strategic planning, process improvement and change management, investigations, defending litigation, audits, investigations or other enforcement challenges, government affairs and public policy.

For additional information about Ms. Stamer, see CynthiaStamer.com or contact Ms. Stamer via email here or via telephone to (469) 767-8872.

About Solutions Law Press, Inc.™

Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ provides human resources and employee benefit and other business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other coaching, tools and other resources, training and education on leadership, governance, human resources, employee benefits, data security and privacy, insurance, health care and other key compliance, risk management, internal control and operational concerns. If you find this of interest, you also be interested reviewing some of our other Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ resources at www.Solutionslawpress.com.

If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information including your preferred e-mail by creating or updating your profile here. ©2016 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc. ™. All other rights reserved. 


Direct contracting could help physicians

August 15, 2016

Direct contracting could help physicians & employers get employees good care at less cost but drs. & employers must know & meet legally rules & have good, compliant contracts. http://ow.ly/i6Jy303fRcH


Plan Fiduciaries, Lawyers Nailed For Ret

August 2, 2016

Plan Fiduciaries, Lawyers Nailed For Retaliation Against ERISA Whistleblowers http://ow.ly/Wjka302PupB


Former Obamacare Advisor Now Says Obamac

August 2, 2016

Former Obamacare Advisor Now Says Obamacare Reforms Misdirected, Hurting Healthcare Quality, Increasing Costs. What’s Your Solution Now?


Criminal Conviction Of Plan Trustee, Outside Legal Counsel Shows Risks of Retaliating Against Whistleblowers For Reporting ERISA Violations

August 1, 2016

The U.S. Department of Labor’s just announced successful whistleblower prosecution in Perez v. Scott Brain, et al of an employee benefit plan trustee, and an individual lawyer and her law firm that served as the employee benefit plan’s outside legal counsel of violating the fiduciary responsibility and whistleblower rules of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) illustrates why employee benefit plan sponsors, trustees or other fiduciaries, their management, legal counsel, auditors and other service providers must both prudently investigate whistleblower allegations or other evidence of potential wrongdoing involving their employee benefit plans and resist the temptation to retaliate against employees or others for reporting or cooperating in the investigation of alleged improprieties involving an employee benefit plan.

The Brain decision highlights the care that employee benefit plan sponsors, fiduciaries, advisors and service providers and their management must use when responding to allegations or other evidence of wrongdoing relating to an employee benefit plan or its administration, investigating and addressing alleged misconduct or other performance or disciplinary concerns involving parties whose report or involvement in investigations of ERISA or other misconduct could form the basis of a potential ERISA 510 or other retaliation complaint.

The decision also makes clear that outside legal counsel advising an employee benefit plan or its fiduciaries in relation to the investigation or response to charges of ERISA misconduct involving an employee benefit plan must use care to avoid actions that could render them liable for participation in acts of illegal retaliation, violating their duty of loyalty to the plan by allowing themselves to become involved in a conflict of interest when investigating or defending potential wrongdoing involving an employee benefit plan, or engaging in other discretionary actions that could constitute a breach of fiduciary duty in violation of ERISA.

In Perez v. Scott Brain, et al., the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California ruled that Cement Masons Southern California Trust Fund’s trustee and Cement Masons Local 600 business manager, Scott Brain (Brain) and outside trust fund legal counsel, Melissa Cook, violated sections 510 and 404 of ERISA by causing the firing a trust fund employee Cheryle Robbins (Robbins) and an employee of the plan’s third party administrator, Cory Rice (Rice), in retaliation for their involvement in filing an internal complaint about and cooperating with the Labor Department’s Employee Benefit Security Administration’s federal criminal investigation of reports of Brain’s wrongful interference as a trustee with collections and contributions from unionized employers.

In 2011, Robbins, director of the trust funds’ audit and collections department, responded to a federal criminal investigation into Brain’s activities with contractors. The same year, she and Rice, who worked for the third-party administrator to the trust fund, American Benefit Plan Administrators, now, Zenith American Solutions (Zenith), participated in an effort to complain about Brain’s interference with efforts to collect delinquent contributions from contractors. Within weeks of this conduct, Robbins was suspended from her employment with the trust fund. Less than six months later, both Robbins and Rice were fired.

The court’s 71-page decision chronicles the coordinated retaliatory campaign orchestrated by Brain and Cook that led to Robbins’ suspension and firing by the employee benefit plan as well as the termination of Cook by his employer, Zenith..

With respect to Robbins’ suspension, the court found that the evidence showed Brain and Cook “were very upset with Robbins due to her contact with the [Department of Labor],” and that Brain and Cook “used their positions and influence to cause the other trustees to vote in favor of” suspending Robbins. To do so, the court explained, Brain and Cook “took the lead at the . . . [b]oard meeting with respect to the discussion of Robbins’ contact with the [Department of Labor]” and “created an environment that was hostile to her,” which “caused the trustees to vote to place her on leave.” The court noted that the two “‘set in motion’ the decision by the Joint Board to put Robbins on leave [.]”

As for Rice’s firing, the court explained how Brain and Cook retaliated against Rice by pressuring his employer, Zenith, into firing Rice and manipulating the Zenith relationship to deter Zenith from rehiring Rice in retaliation for his involvement in efforts to make an internal complaint about Brain.

Based upon evidence introduced during a five-day trial, the District Court ruled that Brain, Cook and Cook’s law firm violated ERISA section 510 by suspending and then discharging Robbins, and causing Zenith to refuse to hire Robbins and to discharge Rice in retaliation for their participation in reporting Brian’s misconduct to the General President of the Operative Plasterers’ and Cement Masons’ International Association and because Robbins participated in a federal criminal investigation of Brain.  Specifically, the District Court ruled:

  • Brain, Cook and Cook’s law firm wrongfully retaliated against Robbins in violation of ERISA 510 for her communications with the DOL by placing her on administrative leave; causing the work performed by the department that Robbins previously managed to be outsourced to Zenith and by causing Zenith not to hire Robbins to participate in its work;
  • Brain, Cook and Cook’s law firm wrongfully retaliated against Rice in violation of ERISA 510 by causing Zenith to terminate Cook;
  • Brain breached his fiduciary duty under ERISA 404 by retaliating against Robbins and causing her to be placed on administrative leave and that Cook knowingly participated in that breach.

The court held that Brain and Cook’s retaliatory conduct violated section 510 of ERISA, which prohibits retaliation against whistleblowers for complaining of ERISA violations or cooperating with a governmental investigation of such violations. The court also held that the couple’s retaliation against Robbins breached Brain’s fiduciary duties under ERISA section 404 to the trust funds and that Cook participated knowingly in that breach.

In reaching its decision, the court rejected attorney Cook’s argument that she was somehow immunized from her unlawful conduct because she was an attorney to the trust funds.  Among other things, the court noted the “apparent conflict of interest” Cook had in representing the trust funds while being in an undisclosed “romantic relationship” with Brain, which existed as defendants carried out their retaliatory scheme. Reminding lawyers of their ethical duties in California, the court cited California Rule of Professional Conduct 3-310(B), which the court explained “requires that an attorney disclose to a client any personal relationship or interest that he or she knows, or with the exercise of reasonable diligence should know, could substantially affect her his or her professional judgment in advising the client.”

As punishing for these criminal violations of ERISA, the District Court ordered the permanent removal of Brain as a trustee. It also ordered the permanent barring of Brain, Cook and her law firm from serving the Cement Masons Southern California Trust Funds. In addition, the court ordered Cook and her law firm to repay all attorneys’ fees she billed the trust funds for the actions she took in retaliating against whistleblowers Robbins and Rice.  These criminal sanctions were in addition to the $630,000 civil damage award that the Labor Department previously secured in lost wages and damages for Robbins, Rice and another worker victimized by Brain and Cook in August 2015.

In addition to its successful prosecution of Brain, Cook and Cook’s law firm on these charges, the DOL also had sought, but failed to convince the District Court based on the evidence presented at trial to find Brain, Cook, Cook’s law firm and Brain’s fellow trust fund trustee Local 600 business agent and Joint Board of Trustees member Jaime Briceno guilty of wrongful retaliation against another alleged whistleblower or Briceno of breaching his fiduciary duties under ERISA by failing to prudently investigate Robbins’ allegations against Brain; or by voting to use assets of the Trust Funds to pay the cost of the settlement of the civil action brought by Robbins. The District Court also refused to consider a newly raised charge that Brain breached his fiduciary duty by failing to collect all monies owed to the Trust Funds on the grounds that the Labor Department had failed to timely raise the charge. While the court refused to convict Briceno, Brain, Cook or Cook’s law firm on the additional charges, the Labor Department’s prosecution of these claims illustrates that along with abstaining from retaliating against ERISA whistleblowers, employee benefit plan fiduciaries also should position themselves to defend against potential breach of fiduciary duty claims based on alleged inadequacies in their investigation or response to reports or other evidence of misconduct involving the plan by prudently investigating and acting to redress allegations or other evidence of potential wrongdoing in the administration of employee benefit plans or their assets.

About The Author

A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, is AV-Preeminent (the highest) rated attorney repeatedly recognized as a Martindale-Hubble as a “LEGAL LEADER™” and “Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in Health Care Law, Labor and Employment Law, and Business & Commercial Law and among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” in ERISA, Labor and Employment and Healthcare Law by D Magazine for her nearly 30 years of experience and knowledge representing and advising employers, employee benefit plans, their sponsors, fiduciaries, service providers and vendors and others on these and other planning, business transaction and contracting, administration, compliance, risk management, audits, investigations, government and private litigation and other enforcement and other related matters.

past Chair and current committee Co-Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) RPTE Section Employee Benefits Group, Vice Chair of the ABA Tort & Insurance Practice Section Employee Benefits Committee, former Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, a former ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Council Representative ,

Ms. Stamer’s legal and management consulting work throughout her nearly 30-year career has focused on helping management manage.  Highly valued for her rare ability to find pragmatic client-centric solutions by combining her detailed legal and operational knowledge and experience with her talent for creative problem-solving,  she de[;pus jer her extensive legal and operational knowledge and experience to help organizations and their management use the law and process to manage people, process, compliance, operations and risk.

As a key part of this work, Ms. Stamer helps public and private, domestic and international businesses, governments, and other organizations and their leaders manage their employees, vendors and suppliers, and other workforce members, customers and other’ performance, compliance, compensation and benefits, operations, risks and liabilities, as well as to prevent, stabilize and cleanup workforce and other legal and operational crises large and small that arise in the course of operations.

Ms. Stamer works with businesses and their management, employee benefit plans, governments and other organizations deal with all aspects of human resources and workforce, internal controls and regulatory compliance, change management and other performance and operations management and compliance. She supports her clients both on a real time, “on demand” basis and with longer term basis to deal with daily performance management and operations, emerging crises, strategic planning, process improvement and change management, investigations, defending litigation, audits, investigations or other enforcement challenges, government affairs and public policy.

Well known for her extensive work with health care, insurance and other highly regulated entities on corporate compliance, internal controls and risk management, her clients range from highly regulated entities like employers, contractors and their employee benefit plans, their sponsors, management, administrators, insurers, fiduciaries and advisors, technology and data service providers, health care, managed care and insurance, financial services, government contractors and government entities, as well as retail, manufacturing, construction, consulting and a host of other domestic and international businesses of all types and sizes. Common engagements include internal and external workforce hiring, management, training, performance management, compliance and administration, discipline and termination, and other aspects of workforce management including employment and outsourced services contracting and enforcement, sentencing guidelines and other compliance plan, policy and program development, administration, and defense, performance management, wage and hour and other compensation and benefits, reengineering and other change management, internal controls, compliance and risk management, communications and training, worker classification, tax and payroll, investigations, crisis preparedness and response, government relations, safety, government contracting and audits, litigation and other enforcement, and other concerns.

Ms. Stamer uses her deep and highly specialized health, insurance, labor and employment and other knowledge and experience to help employers and other employee benefit plan sponsors; health, pension and other employee benefit plans, their fiduciaries, administrators and service providers, insurers, and others design legally compliant, effective compensation, health and other welfare benefit and insurance, severance, pension and deferred compensation, private exchanges, cafeteria plan and other employee benefit, fringe benefit, salary and hourly compensation, bonus and other incentive compensation and related programs, products and arrangements. She is particularly recognized for her leading edge work, thought leadership and knowledgeable advice and representation on the design, documentation, administration, regulation and defense of a diverse range of self-insured and insured health and welfare benefit plans including private exchange and other health benefit choices, health care reimbursement and other “defined contribution” limited benefit, 24-hour and other occupational and non-occupational injury and accident, expat and medical tourism, onsite medical, wellness and other medical plans and insurance benefit programs as well as a diverse range of other qualified and nonqualified retirement and deferred compensation, severance and other employee benefits and compensation, insurance and savings plans, programs, products, services and activities. As a key element of this work, Ms. Stamer works closely with employer and other plan sponsors, insurance and financial services companies, plan fiduciaries, administrators, and vendors and others to design, administer and defend effective legally defensible employee benefits and compensation practices, programs, products and technology. She also continuously helps employers, insurers, administrative and other service providers, their officers, directors and others to manage fiduciary and other risks of sponsorship or involvement with these and other benefit and compensation arrangements and to defend and mitigate liability and other risks from benefit and liability claims including fiduciary, benefit and other claims, audits, and litigation brought by the Labor Department, IRS, HHS, participants and beneficiaries, service providers, and others. She also assists debtors, creditors, bankruptcy trustees and others assess, manage and resolve labor and employment, employee benefits and insurance, payroll and other compensation related concerns arising from reductions in force or other terminations, mergers, acquisitions, bankruptcies and other business transactions including extensive experience with multiple, high-profile large scale bankruptcies resulting in ERISA, tax, corporate and securities and other litigation or enforcement actions.

A former lead consultant to the Government of Bolivia on its Social Security reform law Ms. Stamer also is well-known for her leadership on U.S. health and pension, wage and hour, tax, workforce, tax, education, insurance and other policies critical to the workforce, benefits, and compensation practices and other key aspects of a broad range of businesses and their operations. She both helps her clients respond to and resolve emerging regulations and laws, government investigations and enforcement actions and helps them shape the rules through dealings with Congress and other legislatures, regulators and government officials domestically and internationally. Ms. Stamer works with U.S. and foreign businesses, governments, trade associations, and others on workforce, social security and severance, health care, immigration, privacy and data security, tax, ethics and other laws and regulations. Founder and Executive Director of the Coalition for Responsible Healthcare Policy and its PROJECT COPE: the Coalition on Patient Empowerment and a Fellow in the American Bar Foundation and State Bar of Texas, Ms. Stamer for many years acted as the scribe responsible for leading the Joint Committee on Employee Benefits (JCEB) HHS Office of Civil Rights annual agency meeting and regularly participates in the OCR and other JCEB annual agency meetings, and participates in the development and submission of comments and other input to the agencies on regulatory, enforcement and other concerns. She also works as a policy advisor and advocate to many business, professional and civic organizations.

Author of the thousands of publications and workshops these and other employment, employee benefits, health care, insurance, workforce and other management matters, Ms. Stamer also is a highly sought out speaker and industry thought leader known for empowering audiences and readers. Ms. Stamer’s insights on employee benefits, insurance, health care and workforce matters in Atlantic Information Services, The Bureau of National Affairs (BNA), InsuranceThoughtLeaders.com, Benefits Magazine, Employee Benefit News, Texas CEO Magazine, HealthLeaders, Modern Healthcare, Business Insurance, Employee Benefits News, World At Work, Benefits Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Dallas Morning News, the Dallas Business Journal, the Houston Business Journal, and many other publications. She also has served as an Editorial Advisory Board Member for human resources, employee benefit and other management focused publications of BNA, HR.com, Employee Benefit News, InsuranceThoughtLeadership.com and many other prominent publications. Ms. Stamer also regularly serves on the faculty and planning committees for symposia of LexisNexis, the American Bar Association, ALIABA, the Society of Employee Benefits Administrators, the American Law Institute, ISSA, HIMMs, and many other prominent educational and training organizations and conducts training and speaks on these and other management, compliance and public policy concerns.

Ms. Stamer also is active in the leadership of a broad range of other professional and civic organizations. For instance, Ms. Stamer serves on the Advisory Boards of InsuranceThoughtLeadership.com, HR.com, Employee Benefit News, and as an editorial advisor and contributing author of many other publications. Her leadership involvements with the American Bar Association (ABA) include year’s serving many years as a Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Council representative; ABA RPTE Section current Practice Management Vice Chair and Substantive Groups & Committees Committee Member, RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Committee Past Group Chair and Diversity Award Recipient, current Defined Contribution Plans Committee Co-Chair, and past Welfare Benefit Plans Committee Chair Co-Chair; Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group and a current member of its Healthcare Coordinating Council; current Vice Chair of the ABA TIPS Employee Benefit Committee; International Section Life Sciences Committee Policy Vice Chair; and a speaker, contributing author, comment chair and contributor to numerous Labor, Tax, RPTE, Health Law, TIPS, International and other Section publications, programs and task forces. Other selected service involvements of note include Vice President of the North Texas Healthcare Compliance Professionals Association; past EO Coordinator and a Vice-Chair of the Gulf Coast TEGE Council TE Division; founding Board Member and President of the Alliance for Healthcare Excellence, as a Board Member and Board Compliance Committee Chair for the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas; the Board President of the early childhood development intervention agency, The Richardson Development Center for Children; Chair of the Dallas Bar Association Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Committee; a former Southwest Benefits Association Board of Directors member, Continuing Education Chair and Treasurer; former Texas Association of Business BACPAC Committee Member, Executive Committee member, Regional Chair and Dallas Chapter Chair; former Society of Human Resources Region 4 Chair and Consultants Forum Board Member and Dallas HR Public Policy Committee Chair; former National Board Member and Dallas Chapter President of Web Network of Benefit Professionals; former Dallas Business League President and others. For additional information about Ms. Stamer, see CynthiaStamer.com or contact Ms. Stamer via email here or via telephone to (469) 767-8872.

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Health Plans & Other HIPAA Entities Should Learn From $2.75M UMMC HIPAA Settlement

July 28, 2016

Employers, insurers and other health plan sponsors or issuers (health plans), health care providers, healthcare clearinghouses (covered entities) and their business associates should reevaluate the adequacy of their practices and procedures for the protection of electronic protected health information (ePHI) on or accessible through laptops or other mobile devices in light of the $2.75 million penalty and other schooling the Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights (OCR) just gave the University of Mississippi (UM) Medical Center (UMMC) documented in a July 7, 2016 Resolution Agreement and Corrective Action Plan (Resolution Agreement) resolving OCR charges of multiple violations of the privacy, security and breach notification requirements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) OCR says it uncovered while investigating UMMC’s breach notification report to OCR of the loss a laptop containing 328 files containing the ePHI of an estimated 10,000 patients.

UMMC Report of Missing Laptop Leads To Multiple Charges & Resolution Agreement

Mississippi’s sole public academic health science center, UMMC provides patient care in four specialized hospitals on the Jackson campus and at clinics throughout Jackson and the State as well as conducts medical education and research functions.  Its designated health care component, UMMC, includes University Hospital, the site of the breach in this case, located on the main UMMC campus in Jackson.

The settlement agreed to by UMMC stems from charges resulting from an OCR investigation of UMMC triggered by a breach of unsecured electronic protected health information (“ePHI”) affecting approximately 10,000 individuals.

Like many prior resolution agreements previously announced by OCR, UMMC’s HIPAA woes came to light after a laptop went missing.  OCR learned of the breach and opened its investigation in response to a March 21, 2013 notification UMMC filed with OCR.  UMMC made the breach notification to comply with HIPAA’s Breach Notification Rule requirement that health care providers, health plans and healthcare clearinghouses (Covered Entities) timely notify affected individuals, OCR and others of breaches of unsecured ePHI.

UMMC’s breach notification disclosed that UMMC’s privacy officer had discovered a password-protected laptop containing ePHI of thousands of UMMC patients missing from UMMC’s Medical Intensive Care Unit (MICU). UMMC additionally reported that based on its investigation, UMMC believed that the missing laptop likely was stolen by a visitor to the MICU who had inquired about borrowing one of the laptops.

After discovering the loss, UMMC disclosed the breach to local media and on its website and notified OCR of the breach but apparently did not individually notify the subjects of the missing ePHI.

In keeping with its announced policy of investigating all breach reports impacting 500 or more individuals, OCR opened an investigation into UMMC’s breach report.  Based on this investigation, OCR concluded that while the laptop apparently was password protected, UMMC had breached the Security Rules because ePHI stored on a UMMC network drive was vulnerable to unauthorized access via UMMC’s wireless network because users could use a generic username and password to access an active directory containing 67,000 files including 328 files containing the ePHI of an estimated 10,000 patients.

While OCR’s investigation confirmed that UMMC had implemented policies and procedures pursuant to the HIPAA Rules, OCR’s additionally found that the theft of the laptop that prompted UMMC’s breach report resulted from broad deficiencies in UMMC’s implementation and administration of these policies and its practices.

Based on these findings, OCR charged UMMC with the following HIPAA violations:

  • From the compliance date of the Security Rule, April 20, 2005, through the settlement date, UMMC violated 45 C.F.R. §164.308(a)(1)(i) by failing to implement policies and procedures to prevent, detect, contain, and correct security violations, including conducting an accurate and thorough assessment of the potential risks and vulnerabilities to the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of all of the ePHI it holds, and implementing security measures sufficient to reduce risks and vulnerabilities to a reasonable and appropriate level;
  • From January 19, 2013, until March 1, 2014, UMMC violated 45 C.F.R. §164.310(c) by failing to implement physical safeguards for all workstations that access ePHI to restrict access to authorized users;
  • From the compliance date of the Security Rule, April 20, 2005, to March 14, 2013, UM violated 45 C.F.R. § 164.312 (a)(2)(i) by failing to assign a unique user name and/or number for identifying and tracking user identity in information systems containing ePHI including, for example, allowing workforce members to access ePHI on a shared department network drive through a generic account, preventing UMMC from tracking which specific users were accessing ePHI; and
  • While UMMC provided notification on UMMC’s website and in local media outlets following the discovery of the reported breach of unsecured ePHI,, UMMC violated the Breach Notification Rule by failing to notify each individual whose unsecured ePHI was reasonably believed to have been accessed, acquired, used, or disclosed as a result of the breach.

Finally, OCR determined that UMMC was aware of risks and vulnerabilities to its systems as far back as April 2005, yet took no significant risk management activity until after the breach, due largely to organizational deficiencies and insufficient institutional oversight.

To resolve these charges, UMMC agrees in the Resolution Agreement to pay OCR $2.75 million and implement a comprehensive compliance plan which among other things, requires UMMC to conduct a sweeping review and correct its HIPAA privacy, security and breach notification policies and their implementation and administration to comply with HIPAA as well as implement and administer detailed management and OCR oversight and reporting processes over the implementation and administration of these procedures.

Lessons For Other Covered Entities From UMMC Resolution Agreement

The UMMC charges and Resolution Agreement contains several key lessons for other covered entities and their business associates, which OCR’s July 21, 2016 announcement warns other covered entities and business associates to heed..

Certainly, the $2.75 million settlement amount reaffirms that covered entities and their business associates risk substantial liability for failing to properly assess and protect the security of ePHI in accordance with HIPAA’s Privacy and Security Rule.

Furthermore, the charges and Resolution Agreement also adds a new twist to OCR’s now well established to stiffly sanction covered entities and their business associates that fail appropriately assess and address risks to the security of their ePHI on or accessible from laptops or other mobile devices. Through previous resolution agreements and guidance, OCR has made clear that it interprets the HIPAA Security Rule as generally requiring that covered entities and business associates encrypt all laptops or other mobile devices containing ePHI.  The UMMC charges and Resolution Agreement makes clear that the responsibility to protect ePHI on or accessible through laptops or other mobile devices does not end with encryption.  Rather, the Resolution Agreement makes clear that covered entities and their business associates also must take appropriate, well-documented steps to monitor, assess, identify, and timely and effectively address other potential risks to the security of the ePHI.

The Resolution Agreement makes clear that these additional responsibilities include, but are not necessarily limited to ensuring that proper safeguards are implemented and enforced to secure access not only to the ePHI contained on the laptop as well as other data bases and systems containing ePHI accessible through the laptop.  In this respect, the Resolution Agreement particularly highlights the need for covered entities and their business associates to assess risks and take appropriate steps:

  • To safeguard the physical security of laptops and other mobile devices;
  • To prevent the use of generic or other unsecure passwords to access ePHI on or accessible through the laptop or other mobile device;
  • To establish and administer appropriate, well-documented processes for assessing and addressing the adequacy of safeguards for and potential threats to the security of ePHI both initially and on an ongoing basis in a manner that meaningfully assesses the actual risks and effectiveness of safeguards against these risks, including those resulting from nonadherence to required safeguards and practices such as the sharing of passwords, changing systems or circumstances, and other developments that potentially threaten the adequacy of ePHI security.

Furthermore, OCR’s July 21, 2016 press release concerning the Resolution Agreement also sends a clear message to all covered entities and business associates that OCR views HIPAA as requiring organizations not only to adopt written policies and procedures that comply on paper or in theory with HIPAA, but also to take steps to monitor and maintain the effectiveness of their safeguard by continuously assessing and monitoring their HIPAA risks and acting as necessary to ensure that required safeguards of protected health information and ePHI and other HIPAA requirements are effectively implemented and administered in operation as well as form.

In OCR’s Press Release announcing the Resolution Agreement, OCR Director Jocelyn Samuels. Stated, “We at OCR remain particularly concerned with unaddressed risks that may lead to impermissible access to ePHI.”  She also warned “In addition to identifying risks and vulnerabilities to their ePHI, entities must also implement reasonable and appropriate safeguards to address them within an appropriate time frame.”

Additionally, the Resolution Agreement also illustrates need for covered entities and business associates to timely provide all individual and other notifications and otherwise fully comply with all requirements of the Breach Notification Rules.

Since the risk of a breach is ever-present even for Covered Entities and business associates exercising the highest degree of care to safeguard PHI and maintain compliance with HIPAA, Covered Entities and business associates are wise to take steps to position themselves to be able to demonstrate the adequacy of both their written policies and procedures and the effectiveness of their implementation and enforcement including ongoing documented practices for assessing, monitoring and addressing security risks and other compliance concerns as well as prepare to comply with the breach notification requirements in the event they experience their own breach of unsecured ePHI.

About The Author

A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, current American Bar Association (ABA) International Section Life Sciences Committee Vice Chair, former scribe for the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits (JCEB) Annual OCR Agency Meeting and JCEB Council Representative, former Vice President of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section,  the former Board President and Treasurer of the Richardson Development Center for Children Early Childhood Intervention Agency, and past  Board Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, and Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, is AV-Preeminent (the highest) rated attorney repeatedly recognized for her nearly 30 years of experience and knowledge representing and advising healthcare, health plan and other health industry and others on these and other regulatory, workforce, risk management, technology, public policy and operations matters as a Martindale-Hubble as a “LEGAL LEADER™” and “Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in Health Care Law, Labor and Employment Law, and Business & Commercial Law and among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” by D Magazine.

Ms. Stamer’s health industry experience includes advising hospitals, nursing home, home health, rehabilitation and other health care providers and health industry clients to establish and administer compliance and risk management policies; prevent, conduct and investigate, and respond to peer review and other quality concerns; and to respond to Board of Medicine, Department of Aging & Disability, Drug Enforcement Agency, OCR Privacy and Civil Rights, Department of Labor, IRS, HHS, DOD and other health care industry investigation, enforcement and other compliance, public policy, regulatory, staffing, and other operations and risk management concerns.

Ms. Stamer also is known for her experience in HIPAA and other privacy and data security and breach concerns.  The scribe for ABA JCEB annual agency meeting with OCR for many years, Ms. Stamer has worked extensively with health care providers, health plans, health care clearinghouses, their business associates, employers and other plan sponsors, banks and other financial institutions, and others on risk management and compliance with HIPAA, FACTA, trade secret and other information privacy and data security rules, including the establishment, documentation, implementation, audit and enforcement of policies, procedures, systems and safeguards, investigating and responding to known or suspected breaches, defending investigations or other actions by plaintiffs, OCR and other federal or state agencies, reporting known or suspected violations, business associate and other contracting, commenting or obtaining other clarification of guidance, training and enforcement, and a host of other related concerns. Her clients include public and private health care providers, health insurers, health plans, technology and other vendors, and others. In addition to representing and advising these organizations, she also has conducted training on Privacy & The Pandemic for the Association of State & Territorial Health Plans, as well as HIPAA, FACTA, PCI, medical confidentiality, insurance confidentiality and other privacy and data security compliance and risk management for Los Angeles County Health Department, ISSA, HIMMS, the ABA, SHRM, schools, medical societies, government and private health care and health plan organizations, their business associates, trade associations and others.

A popular lecturer and widely published author on health industry concerns, Ms. Stamer continuously advises health industry clients about compliance and internal controls, workforce and medical  staff performance, quality, governance, reimbursement, and other risk management and operational matters. Ms. Stamer also publishes and speaks extensively on health and managed care industry regulatory, staffing and human resources, compensation and benefits, technology, public policy, reimbursement and other operations and risk management concerns. Her insights on these and other related matters appear in the Health Care Compliance Association, Atlantic Information Service, Bureau of National Affairs, The Wall Street Journal, Business Insurance, the Dallas Morning News, Modern Health Care, Managed Healthcare, Health Leaders, and a many other national and local publications.

You can get more information about her health industry experience here or contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (469) 767-8872 or via e-mail here.

About Solutions Law Press Inc.™

Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ provides business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other resources, training and education on human resources, employee benefits, compensation, data security and privacy, health care, insurance, and other key compliance, risk management, internal controls and other key operational concerns.

If you found these updates of interest, you may be interested in other recent Solutions Law Press, Inc. updates like the following:

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For important information concerning this communication see here. THE FOLLOWING DISCLAIMER IS INCLUDED TO COMPLY WITH AND IN RESPONSE TO U.S. TREASURY DEPARTMENT CIRCULAR 230 REGULATIONS. ANY STATEMENTS CONTAINED HEREIN ARE NOT INTENDED OR WRITTEN BY THE WRITER TO BE USED, AND NOTHING CONTAINED HEREIN CAN BE USED BY YOU OR ANY OTHER PERSON, FOR THE PURPOSE OF (1) AVOIDING PENALTIES THAT MAY BE IMPOSED UNDER FEDERAL TAX LAW, OR (2) PROMOTING, MARKETING OR RECOMMENDING TO ANOTHER PARTY ANY TAX-RELATED TRANSACTION OR MATTER ADDRESSED HEREIN.

©2016 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C. Non-exclusive license to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc. All other rights reserved.


Justice Department sues to challenge Aet

July 21, 2016

Justice Department sues to challenge Aetna Cigna & Humana Mergers
http://ow.ly/y0Ld302tPN9


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