California Department of Public Health Breach Fines and Legally Defensible Security

The California Department of Public Health (“CDPH”) recently announced its imposition of $675,000 in fines to six hospitals that had reported security breaches involving medical records (since January 1, 2009, the CDPH has issued fines totaling $1.1 million). The story has been extensively reported on in the media . You can listen to the CDPH’s press conference here. The total number of records exposed was only 244, for an average fine of around $2,766 per record. To put that in perspective, if a California hospital suffered a breach involving 100,000 medical records, using the average stated here, their potential fines could be $276 million (assuming no cap for fines and penalties -- the relevant laws do have a cap of $250,000 per incident).

In this post we take a deeper look at the CDPH fines and the legal framework that gave rise to them, and explore the concept of legally defensible security in this context.

Legal Framework and Basis for these Fines and Penalties

It is best to start at the beginning and take a quick look at the legal framework for the fines and penalties imposed on the hospitals. In this case it was a potent combination of California laws involving:

(1) a breach notice law that requiring hospitals to provide notice to the CDPH of unlawful or unauthorized access to, and use or disclosure of medical information with 5 days after detection;

(2) a duty to prevent unlawful or unauthorized access to, and use or disclosure of medical information; and

(3) an obligation to establish and implement appropriate administrative, technical, and physical safeguards to protect the privacy of a patient’s medical information and reasonably safeguard confidential medical information from any unauthorized access or unlawful access, use, or disclosure; and

(4) potential fines of $25,000 per patient ($17,500 per subsequent breach per patient) capped at $250,000 per event.

These legal requirements are all contained in two bills that amended California law in 2008: AB 211 and SB 541 (you can find the final amendments incorporated into the actual statutes here and here).  Also referenced by the CDPH is Title 22, Section 70707(b)(8) of California's Code of Regulations, which lists the following as a mandatory "patient right" under the law:

Confidential treatment of all communications and records pertaining to the care and the stay in the hospital. Written permission shall be obtained before the medical records can be made available to anyone not directly concerned with the care.

Legal Defensibility

To refresh, the following summarizes a legally defensible security approach:

The focus of legal defensibility is understanding how a plaintiff ’s attorney, judge, jury, or regulator will view an organization’s security posture in light of applicable legal requirements. Under a legal defensibility analysis security choices become legal positions or arguments to be used to persuade legal decision-makers that an organization’s security was legally sound, and increase the likelihood that a judge, jury, or regulator will find a company legally compliant. Ultimately, there may not be a clear “right” or “wrong” answer, but rather a more or less persuasive legal argument/position on security.

In the case of the California laws outlined in this post, hospitals should be asking themselves as they develop their security programs, how will the CDPH interpret the security obligations contained in those laws, and in the event (or the inevitability as the case may be) of a security breach, what legal arguments does the hospital have to persuade regulators to refrain from issuing a fine?

A full blown analysis of the key security-related legal issues is well beyond the scope of this blogpost. However, there are some key issues posed by these laws that would be addressed under a legal defensibility approach.

Relationship between AB 211 and SB 541.

The obligations set forth in AB 211 and SB 541 appear to overlap and impact the development of an information security program. The relevant amendment set forth in SB 541 reads as follows:

1280.15. (a) A clinic, health facility, home health agency, or hospice licensed pursuant to Section 1204, 1250, 1725, or 1745 shall prevent unlawful or unauthorized access to, and use or disclosure of, patients’ medical information, as defined in subdivision (g) of Section 56.05 of the Civil Code and consistent with Section 130203.

(emphasis supplied).  Section 130203 was actually added by AB 211, and provides in relevant part:

Every provider of health care shall establish and implement appropriate administrative, technical, and physical safeguards to protect the privacy of a patient’s medical information. Every provider of health care shall reasonably safeguard confidential medical information from any unauthorized access or unlawful access, use, or disclosure.

One reading of SB 541 is that no violation would exist due to a failure to prevent unauthorized access as long as the hospital could establish that it had “appropriate administrative, technical and physical safeguards” and reasonably safeguarded medical information (see AB 211). Another might read this part of SB 541 as creating regulatory liability if a hospital fails to prevent unauthorized access to medical records regardless of the hospital's security stance.  Listening to the press conference put on by the CDPH it is not clear whether (or to what extent) they took the hospitals' security into account (and the CDPH indicated that it had not issued any "best practices" in this regard).  

From a legal defensibility standpoint, legal analysis should be performed to determine arguments for and against each position.  This analysis might look deeper into the legislative history behind these laws as wells as prior decisions and documents issued by the CDPH (e.g. the survey findings reports issued by the CDPH).  That legal analysis will help to inform the hospital’s security team as to what actions to take and where to focus its efforts.

Appropriate Controls

Assuming that establishing and implementing appropriate/reasonable safeguards would provide a hospital with the means to escape regulatory fines, a legal defensibility approach would require research and analysis as to the meaning of “appropriate” and “reasonable” in this context. This meaning might be derived from legislative history, case law, other statutes using analogous language or decisions or documents issued by the CDPH concerning security measures (or the lack thereof).

Hospitals lawyers that perform this analysis while they are building their security program can help to guide their security teams to address crucial areas and reduce liability.  Would compliance with particular standards improve their legal position? Would a evidence of a comprehensive security risk assessment persuade regulators that the hospital had done the right thing despite the breach? What security measures has the CDPH stressed or scrutinized in prior investigations? Employing a legal defensibility strategy would allow the hospitals to have established legal positions concerning their security in order persuade regulators not to impose fines and penalties 

Risk Factors to Mitigate Potential for Fines

Both SB 541 and AB 211 set forth specific factors that regulators may take into account when deciding whether a security breach involving medical information is worthy of a fine and how much the fine should be. For instance, SB 541 provides:

For purposes of the investigation, the department shall consider the clinic’s, health facility’s, agency’s, or hospice’s history of compliance with this section and other related state and federal statutes and regulations, the extent to which the facility detected violations and took preventative action to immediately correct and prevent past violations from recurring, and factors outside its control that restricted the facility’s ability to comply with this section. The department shall have full discretion to consider all factors when determining the amount of an administrative penalty pursuant to this section.

Again, the key issue here is when developing the information security program, in light of these factors, what security should be implemented to reduce legal risk. More to the point, based on these factors, what arguments exist for the hospital to claim that they should not be fined. For example, based on references to detection, prevention and “immediate correct[ion],” a hospital that established a security program with strong intrusion detection and prevention controls might persuade regulators to refrain from imposing fines. Moreover, if the security program’s incident response procedures stressed rapid correction of breaches, and such correction took place, this fact may mitigate against the imposition of fees.

There are many other legal issues presented by this language that could impact how a security program is implemented so that it is legally defensible. For example, which of these factors do the legislators or regulators weigh more heavily (or are they all treated the same)? Is there any evidence (perhaps past regulatory actions and documents related thereto) that indicate other factors regulators may take into account when deciding whether to impose fees (at the CDPH press conference the spokesperson indicated that it had taken the "rural" nature of two hospitals into account in assessing penalties). Answering these questions requires careful legal analysis and coordination between a hospital's legal and security teams.

Preferably all of these legal defense considerations are proactively baked into a security program when it is built (instead of having to construct arguments reactively in the wake of a security breach). Preferably these legal positions are documented and preserved for use in case something goes wrong (instead of having to create them ad hoc in the heat of a breach situation).  Having established positions is even more important for these California laws since hospitals only have five days before they are required to provide notice to the CDPH.  Five days is likely not enough time to conduct a full investigation and analysis, and construct complex legal arguments.


It remains to be seen whether these fines are a one-time warning shot for deterrence purposes, or  potentially the beginning of significant series of fines for California healthcare entiteis that have reported more than 3,400 patient confidentiality breaches since January 1, 2009.  Either way these fines highlight the need for a legal defensibility approach when developing an information security program.

This is the reality in California for hospitals: you will need to report breaches to the CDPH within five days of detection, the CDPH has the potential to impose stiff fines if they believe you have violated various laws, and the hospital with have to establish that despite the breach it was doing the right thing and should not be fined. Hospitals that have not considered how to build security programs that provide solid legal arguments in favor of compliance with these laws may find themselves unable to dissuade regulators from imposing fines. They will be in a defensive and reactive posture under extreme time pressure instead of a proactive and prepared posture.  Considering security and patient confidentiality for a legal defensibility standpoint may help to mitigate some of this risk.