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Tuesday, May 21, 2024 | Back issues
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Attorney Who Triggered|TB Scare Can Sue CDC

(CN) - An Atlanta attorney at the center of a 2007 tuberculosis scare can sue the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for allegedly violating his privacy rights by leaking his identity to law enforcement and the media, the 11th Circuit ruled.

Personal injury attorney Andrew Harley Speaker was diagnosed with multidrug-resistant tuberculosis in April 2007. He said the CDC knew about his plans to get married and honeymoon in Europe, and no public health officials warned him against traveling abroad.

On May 12, Speaker took an Air France flight to Paris, where he was told that his condition had been reclassified as extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis, a more virulent strain. He was allegedly barred from flying home on a commercial airline, but the government said it didn't have the money to pay for a chartered flight. Speaker claimed the agency gave him two options: charter his own flight or check into an Italian hospital for treatment.

Speaker ignored the CDC's travel instructions and booked a Czech Air flight from Prague to Montreal. He then crossed the border by car and checked in to a hospital in New York City, where he was served with a federal quarantine order -- the first imposed on a U.S. citizen since 1963.

The order generated substantial media buzz, for which CDC employees held press conferences. On May 31, 2007, The Associated Press published an article identifying Speaker by name, claiming the information came from a federal law enforcement official and a medical official in Atlanta, both of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Speaker said the sources got their information from the CDC, which had offered identifying details, including his flight and seat number, at a press conference. He argued that the CDC's disclosure of his confidential medical history violated his rights under the Privacy Act.

A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, ruling "that Speaker's identity was not disclosed by the CDC or any other person," but had been revealed through the AP's "other information sources."

Reversing, the 11th Circuit in Atlanta pointed out that Speaker's lawsuit did, in fact, accuse the federal agency of directly disclosing his identity.

"Even the CDC does not dispute that it had the information that Speaker alleges was impermissibly disclosed," Circuit Judge Frank Hull wrote. "And there is no doubt that some entity, or its employees, disclosed Speaker's identity, since not even the CDC contends that Speaker himself revealed this information before the AP's May 31 article" (emphasis in original).

The court revived the Speaker's claim and remanded.

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