Amount Aspen Hospital Paid to Employee Over HIV-Positive Revelation: $800K

Update: The settlement between a John Doe plaintiff and Aspen Valley Hospital over the disclosure of his HIV-positive status and subsequent retaliation against him for making an issue of it — see our previous coverage below — was reached privately, with both parties agreeing not to disclose the dollars involved.

Now, however, the amount of the hospital's payout has been made public thanks to an open-records request, and as noted by the Aspen Daily News, it's substantial: $800,000, with $480,000 going to the former employee and $320,000 earmarked for attorney's fees.

Mari Newman, who represented John Doe, isn't commenting on the disclosure. But Dave Ressler, who returned last week as CEO of Aspen Valley Hospital following a previous stint in the position from 2004 to 2013, told the Daily News that "litigation can be very expensive.... We weighed the cost of litigation against a settlement. It was the recommendation of our legal counsel, and our insurance company agreed with the recommendation, to settle the case.”

Continue for our previous coverage.

Update, 7:47 a.m. September 29: The dispute between Aspen Valley Hospital and a former employee who said he was fired after complaining about a staffer who had improperly disclosed his HIV-positive status has ended.

Following the revelation in a scheduling order on view below that an investigator assigned to the case and the subject of the inquiry, AVH director of human resources Alicia Miller, were involved in an "intimate relationship," a settlement has been reached.

Because the agreement is confidential, neither attorney Mari Newman, who represented the employee, known in court documents as John Doe, nor representatives of the hospital are allowed to publicly comment on the details of the pact.

However, it appears that none of the defendants in the case, including Miller, who is said to have revealed John Doe's medical condition to a colleague over a glass of wine at a HR professionals convention in Denver, has lost his or her job over the matter.

Meanwhile, there's new leadership at Aspen Valley Hospital — sort of. Dave Ressler, who was CEO at the facility from 2004 to 2013, returned this week to helm the organization. He was in the position circa 2012, when John Doe learned about the original disclosure, but was not in charge as of 2015, when the plaintiff was terminated.

Continue for our previous coverage.

Update, 6:37 a.m. September 20: A John Doe lawsuit claims that a representative of Aspen Valley Hospital divulged personal medical information about an employee who is HIV-positive, after which the hospital retaliated against him for filing a complaint about the revelation; see our previous coverage below.

Since then, the hospital has reportedly filed four separate motions to dismiss the complaint. One of them acknowledges that defendant Alicia Miller, AVH's director of human resources, "inadvertently disclosed" Doe's medical information to a co-worker but asserts that his "HIV status is common knowledge in the community."

Attorney Mari Newman, who represents Doe, calls this claim "simply false. The reason she was aware of his condition is that she improperly accessed it as an employee tasked with evaluating ways the hospital could reduce health-care costs because of the medications associated with it. So the fact that she confesses to the fact that she improperly disclosed his HIV status is true, but how we get from there to them being justified in firing him after he filed a complaint with the office of civil rights makes no sense."

Beyond that, however, there's a surprising allegation contained within a scheduling order filed in the case. According to that document, the investigator assigned to look into Doe's complaint, AVH chief compliance officer Stephen Knowles, was involved in an "intimate relationship" with Miller.

The order maintains that the investigation was a "sham" for this reason, among others — a theme Newman reinforces in conversation. As she puts it, the inquiry "was tainted from the beginning because the hospital assigned the investigation to someone with whom Miss Miller was involved in an intimate relationship."

See the scheduling order below; the first mention of the relationship between Knowles and Miller can be found on page eight. That's followed by our previous coverage.

John Doe v. Aspen Valley Hospital: Scheduling Order

Original post, 5:38 a.m. August 30: Among the key elements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, shorthanded as HIPAA, are provisions guarding the privacy of a person's medical history. And since hospitals are repositories of such information, they are on the front lines when it comes to preventing such data from being made public.

All of which makes the claims leveled in a lawsuit against Aspen Valley Hospital that much more surprising.

The document states that a longtime employee's HIV-positive status was divulged by a hospital exec — and when he issued a HIPAA complaint, he became the target of a retaliatory campaign that eventually resulted in his being fired.

The hospital has declined to comment about the suit beyond stating that it would vigorously defend itself at the appropriate time. Meanwhile, attorney Mari Newman, who's representing the longtime hospital employee, referred to in the document as John Doe, argues that the manner in which the information got out adds insult to injury. She maintains that Alicia Miller, the hospital's director of human resources (she's among the defendants named in the case), told another employee about the man's diagnosis "as a piece of gossip over a glass of wine."

The suit, on view below, notes that the man served as the hospital's conference center coordinator for eleven years and earned consistently excellent employee reviews over that time.

But because he was HIV-positive, he took expensive anti-viral medications that brought him to Miller's attention. She learned about his condition in late 2011 or early 2012, when she was asked to review individual health-insurance records by the hospital's carrier with an eye toward reducing costs.

In late September 2012, according to the suit, Miller attended an HR professionals convention in Denver, and after one session, she had drinks with a cohort. John Doe was in the hospital as a patient at the time, and he came up in conversation, with Miller allegedly saying, "I'm just not sure how things are going to get better" for him. When her co-worker asked for more details, Miller is quoted as adding, "I am just worried for him since he is HIV-positive."

The employee had closely guarded his HIV status, not even telling his own family, the lawsuit asserts — so he was shocked two years later, when Miller's confidante, who had by then left her job at the hospital, told him what her former boss had revealed.

Shortly thereafter, the ex-employee contacted the hospital's administration about Miller's comments and an investigation was launched. But the suit allows that John Doe quickly determined that the inquiry wasn't being taken seriously, with one hospital representative allegedly telling him that "HIV was not a 'big deal' any longer, and so neither was the disclosure."

Eventually, the man filed a complaint with the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Civil Rights — at which point his situation at the hospital got worse.

"Instead of apologizing or disciplining its so-called 'privacy officer,' the hospital subjected the plaintiff to a vicious campaign of harassment, including a demotion and dramatic cut in pay, in direct retaliation for his federally protected complaint," writes Newman, corresponding via e-mail. "The hospital then wrongfully terminated the plaintiff in retaliation for his courage to expose the hospital’s wrongdoing and in violation of his rights under the U.S. Constitution, and federal and state law."

Newman sees the case as important in part because of her belief that "the hospital’s disclosure of Mr. Doe’s private medical information and its retaliatory termination of his employment is not an isolated incident, but rather part of the hospital’s custom, policy and practice of both disclosing private patient information and retaliating against employees who object to the hospital’s violations of HIPAA and other privacy protections" — claims also detailed in the lawsuit.

She adds that "every patient of Aspen Valley Hospital should be alarmed by the hospital’s illegal treatment of Mr. Doe." In her view, treating her client's "most intimate medical information as fodder for gossip over a glass of wine" shows that "no patient’s privacy is safe. The fact that the hospital ratified this blatant privacy breach and punished Mr. Doe for asserting his legal rights demonstrates a level of hubris that makes its conduct even more outrageous."

See the complete lawsuit below.

John Doe v. Aspen Valley Hospital

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts