McCormick v. England, No. 2751

CourtCourt of Appeals of South Carolina
Writing for the CourtANDERSON
Citation494 S.E.2d 431,328 S.C. 627
PartiesSally McCORMICK, Appellant, v. Kent ENGLAND, M.D., and Michael Meyers, M.S.W., Defendants, of whom Kent England, M.D., is Respondent. . Heard
Decision Date04 November 1997
Docket NumberNo. 2751

Page 431

494 S.E.2d 431
328 S.C. 627
Sally McCORMICK, Appellant,
v.
Kent ENGLAND, M.D., and Michael Meyers, M.S.W., Defendants,
of whom Kent England, M.D., is Respondent.
No. 2751.
Court of Appeals of South Carolina.
Heard Nov. 4, 1997.
Decided Nov. 17, 1997.
Rehearing Denied Jan. 22, 1998.

Page 432

[328 S.C. 630] J. Brent Kiker, of Svalina, Richardson & Larson, Beaufort, and James B. Richardson, Jr., of Svalina, Richardson & Larson, Columbia, for Appellant.

Hutson S. Davis, Jr. and Scott A. Seelhoff, both of Davis, Tupper, Grimsley & Seelhoff, Beaufort, for Respondent.

ANDERSON, Judge:

Sally McCormick filed a complaint alleging that her physician, Kent England, breached a duty of confidentiality by disclosing information about her emotional health during a divorce proceeding involving her former husband. The special circuit court judge struck the allegation from the complaint, finding it did not state a cause of action. McCormick appeals. We hold South Carolina shall recognize a cause of action for a physician's breach of a duty of confidentiality. Accordingly, we reverse and remand.

FACTUAL/PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Dr. England was the family physician for McCormick, her former husband, and their children. McCormick and her husband became involved in a divorce action in which custody of the children was at issue. In support of his Motion for Emergency Relief and a Restraining Order, McCormick's husband submitted two letters to the family court regarding McCormick's emotional status. One letter was from a licensed social worker, defendant Michael Meyers, who alleged that McCormick had a severe drinking problem which caused her to be a danger to herself and to her family. The other letter was prepared by Dr. England and was addressed "To Whom It May Concern." In his letter, Dr. England diagnosed McCormick as suffering from "major depression and alcoholism, acute and chronic." Further, Dr. England stated the children had experienced school difficulties due to the family [328 S.C. 631] discord caused by McCormick's drinking. He stated it was his medical opinion that McCormick was "a danger to herself and to her family with her substance abuse and major depressive symptoms," and concluded that she required hospitalization. There is no indication in the record that the letter was prepared under court order. 1

Page 433

McCormick brought this action for negligence, libel, invasion of privacy, outrage, breach of confidence, and civil conspiracy against Dr. England and Meyers. She alleged in her fifth cause of action for breach of confidence that Dr. England and Meyers had breached "a duty of non-disclosure of confidential communications with the plaintiff concerning her mental health conditions" by publishing and disseminating these confidential communications to the public "in direct contravention of South Carolina statutory law." Specifically, McCormick alleged a duty of confidentiality existed pursuant to S.C.Code Ann. § 19-11-95 (Supp.1996), entitled "Confidences of patients of mental illness or emotional conditions."

Dr. England filed a motion to strike the fifth cause of action for breach of confidence on the basis the facts alleged failed to constitute a cause of action. 2 At the hearing on the motion, McCormick additionally relied on the Physicians' Patient Records Act, S.C.Code Ann. §§ 44-115-10 to -150 (Supp.1996), which prohibits the disclosure of medical records without the patient's consent.

The judge granted the motion to strike the breach of confidence action as to Dr. England, stating, "It is well known that South Carolina does not recognize the physician-patient privilege at common law." The judge found there was no statutory duty of confidentiality alleged that was applicable to Dr. England. The judge noted that, under its terms, § 19-11-95 applies only to licensed psychologists, counselors, family therapists, social workers, and registered nurses. Therefore, [328 S.C. 632] the statute did not apply to Dr. England. Further, since the letter did not disclose any medical records as such, the judge found the "duty of confidentiality" imposed by the Records Act, §§ 44-115-10 to -150, was also inapplicable. Finally, the judge found that, in any event, there was no breach of confidence resulting from Dr. England's disclosures because "the letter was written out of necessity and for the express purpose of protecting others as well as [McCormick] herself due to her mental and emotional condition at that time."

McCormick filed a motion to alter or amend the order in which she argued that a physician's duty of confidentiality exists under the common law, and that her cause of action should not have been stricken if she was entitled to recovery under any theory. The judge denied the motion, stating he would have considered allowing McCormick to amend her pleadings to allege a cause of action for common law breach of confidence, but that he was not convinced such a duty exists since South Carolina does not recognize the physician-patient privilege. He also noted that any damages which might be recovered could be recovered under her claim for invasion of privacy. Finally, the judge found that even if a cause of action for breach of a duty of confidentiality existed, Dr. England's letter would not violate that duty "because it was necessary in the proceeding before the court for the protection of [McCormick] and her family that the information be disclosed to the court." McCormick appeals, arguing the trial court erred in finding South Carolina does not recognize the tort of breach of confidence applicable to the physician-patient relationship, in deciding an issue of first impression on a motion to strike, and in holding the publication was not a breach of the duty of confidentiality.

ISSUE

Does South Carolina recognize a cause of action for a physician's breach of the duty of confidentiality?

STANDARD OF REVIEW

A motion to strike which challenges a theory of recovery in the complaint is in the nature of a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), SCRCP. A ruling on a motion to [328 S.C. 633] dismiss a claim must be based solely on the allegations set forth on the face of the complaint. The motion cannot be sustained if the facts alleged and the inferences reasonably deducible therefrom would entitle the plaintiff to any relief on any theory of the case. See Dye v. Gainey, 320 S.C. 65, 463 S.E.2d 97 (Ct.App.1995). The question is whether in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and with every reasonable doubt

Page 434

resolved in her behalf, the complaint states any valid claim for relief. The cause of action should not be struck merely because the court doubts the plaintiff will prevail in the action. Id. at 68, 463 S.E.2d at 99.

LAW/ANALYSIS

McCormick argues the trial court erred in finding South Carolina does not recognize the common law tort of breach of confidence as applied to the physician-patient relationship. 3 We agree.

Whether a separate tort action for a physician's breach of a duty of confidentiality exists under the common law is a novel issue in this state. Dr. England contends South Carolina courts have previously ruled that no duty of confidentiality exists between a physician and patient; therefore, there can be no action for its breach. He cites Aakjer v. Spagnoli, 291 S.C. 165, 173, 352 S.E.2d 503, 508 (Ct.App.1987), wherein this Court stated, "There is no physician-patient privilege in South Carolina."

"At common law neither the patient nor the physician has the privilege to refuse to disclose in court a communication of one to the other, nor does either have a privilege [328 S.C. 634] that the communication not be disclosed to a third person." 61 Am.Jur.2d Physicians, Surgeons, and Other Healers § 169 (1981) (emphasis added). Although many states have statutorily created a "physician-patient testimonial privilege," South Carolina has not enacted a similar statute and does not recognize the physician-patient privilege. Peagler v. Atlantic Coast Line R.R. Co., 232 S.C. 274, 101 S.E.2d 821 (1958) (statutes have been enacted in most states making communications between a physician and patient privileged from compulsory disclosure, but there is no such statute in South Carolina). However, the absence of a testimonial privilege prohibiting certain in-court disclosures is not determinative of our issue because this evidentiary privilege is distinguishable from a duty of confidentiality. As our Supreme Court recently observed in South Carolina State Board of Medical Examiners v. Hedgepath, 325 S.C. 166, 480 S.E.2d 724 (1997): "The terms 'privilege' and 'confidences' are not synonymous, and a professional's duty to maintain his client's confidences is independent of the issue whether he can be legally compelled to reveal some or all of those confidences, that is, whether those communications are privileged." Id. at 169, 480 S.E.2d at 726.

Hedgepath was a disciplinary proceeding against a physician rather than a private action seeking damages for breach of confidence; however, it involves facts strikingly similar to the case on appeal. In Hedgepath, a physician, who initially acted as the family therapist for a married couple and then as an individual therapist for the wife, prepared an affidavit for use at a family court hearing. The physician provided the affidavit to the husband's attorney without consulting or obtaining permission from the wife. The affidavit was not compelled by subpoena or other legal process. The State Board of Medical Examiners disciplined the physician for misconduct for breaching a duty of confidentiality imposed by the regulations governing the medical profession. See 26 S.C.Code Ann. Regs. 81-60(D) (Supp.1996) ("A physician shall respect the rights of patients ... and shall safeguard patient confidence within the constraints of the law."). The Board is authorized to discipline a physician for misconduct pursuant to S.C.Code Ann. § 40-47-200...

To continue reading

Request your trial
39 practice notes
  • Nelson v. QHG OF SOUTH CAROLINA INC., No. 3626.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of South Carolina
    • April 14, 2003
    ...motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim is improper. Brown v. Leverette, 291 S.C. 364, 353 S.E.2d 697 (1987); McCormick v. England, 328 S.C. 627, 494 S.E.2d 431 (Ct.App.1997). The facts and inferences alleged on the complaint are viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. T......
  • Wogan v. Kunze, No. 4026.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of South Carolina
    • September 26, 2005
    ...711, 715 (2003). South Carolina has recognized the doctor-patient relationship as a confidential relationship. McCormick v. England, 328 S.C. 627, 639, 494 S.E.2d 431, 437 (Ct.App.1997); see also Hodge v. Shea, 252 S.C. 601, 608, 168 S.E.2d 82, 85 (1969). However, this state has not found t......
  • Byrne v. Avery Ctr. for Obstetrics & Gynecology, P.C., SC 19873
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Connecticut
    • January 16, 2018
    ...of South Carolina has also recognized "the [common-law] tort of breach of a physician's duty of confidentiality." McCormick v. England , 328 S.C. 627, 643, 494 S.E.2d 431 (App. 1997). In McCormick , the court explained the fiduciary nature of the physician-patient relationship as follows: "......
  • Muransky v. Godiva Chocolatier, Inc., No. 16-16486; 16-16783
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit
    • October 3, 2018
    ...in breach of confidence cases, the harm happens when the plaintiff’s trust in the breaching party is violated. See McCormick v. England, 328 S.C. 627, 494 S.E.2d 431, 437–38 (S.C. Ct. App. 1997) (distinguishing privacy torts from breach of confidence). Under this view, when a customer uses ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
39 cases
  • Nelson v. QHG OF SOUTH CAROLINA INC., No. 3626.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of South Carolina
    • April 14, 2003
    ...motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim is improper. Brown v. Leverette, 291 S.C. 364, 353 S.E.2d 697 (1987); McCormick v. England, 328 S.C. 627, 494 S.E.2d 431 (Ct.App.1997). The facts and inferences alleged on the complaint are viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. T......
  • Wogan v. Kunze, No. 4026.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of South Carolina
    • September 26, 2005
    ...711, 715 (2003). South Carolina has recognized the doctor-patient relationship as a confidential relationship. McCormick v. England, 328 S.C. 627, 639, 494 S.E.2d 431, 437 (Ct.App.1997); see also Hodge v. Shea, 252 S.C. 601, 608, 168 S.E.2d 82, 85 (1969). However, this state has not found t......
  • Byrne v. Avery Ctr. for Obstetrics & Gynecology, P.C., SC 19873
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Connecticut
    • January 16, 2018
    ...of South Carolina has also recognized "the [common-law] tort of breach of a physician's duty of confidentiality." McCormick v. England , 328 S.C. 627, 643, 494 S.E.2d 431 (App. 1997). In McCormick , the court explained the fiduciary nature of the physician-patient relationship as follows: "......
  • Muransky v. Godiva Chocolatier, Inc., No. 16-16486; 16-16783
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit
    • October 3, 2018
    ...in breach of confidence cases, the harm happens when the plaintiff’s trust in the breaching party is violated. See McCormick v. England, 328 S.C. 627, 494 S.E.2d 431, 437–38 (S.C. Ct. App. 1997) (distinguishing privacy torts from breach of confidence). Under this view, when a customer uses ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT