Payne v. Taslimi

Decision Date27 May 2021
Docket NumberNo. 18-7030,18-7030
Citation998 F.3d 648
Parties Christopher N. PAYNE, Plaintiff - Appellant, v. Jahal TASLIMI, Medical Doctor at Armor Health Serv.; Ms. Smith, LPN, HAS Armor Health Serv., Defendant - Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit

ARGUED: Gilbert Charles Dickey, MCGUIREWOODS LLP, Washington, D.C., for Appellant. Christopher Fitzjames Quirk, SANDS ANDERSON, PC, Richmond, Virginia, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Matthew A. Fitzgerald, MCGUIREWOODS LLP, Richmond, Virginia, for Appellant. Edward J. McNelis, III, SANDS ANDERSON, PC, Richmond, Virginia, for Appellees.


Affirmed by published opinion. Judge Richardson wrote the opinion, in which Judge Thacker and Judge Quattlebaum joined.

RICHARDSON, Circuit Judge:

While incarcerated in a prison medical unit, Christopher Payne's doctor came to his bedside and reminded Payne, within the earshot of others, that he had not taken his human immunodeficiency virus ("HIV") medication. Payne asserts that the doctor's conduct violated his Fourteenth Amendment right to privacy and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 ("HIPAA"), Pub. L. 104-191, 110 Stat. 1936 (codified at 29 U.S.C. § 1181 et seq. ).

We first reject Payne's claim that the doctor's statement violated the Fourteenth Amendment because he lacks a reasonable expectation of privacy in this information while incarcerated in a prison medical center. We also reject Payne's HIPAA claim because HIPAA does not create a private right of action that Payne may avail himself of. So we affirm the dismissal of his complaint.

I. Background

In 2018, Payne was incarcerated at Deep Meadow Correctional Center in State Farm, Virginia. Dr. Jahal Taslimi approached Payne's bed in the medical unit and told Payne that he had "not take[n] [his] HIV medications" that day. J.A. 16. According to Payne, the medical unit is an "open dorm," so other staff, offenders, and civilians were close enough to overhear Dr. Taslimi's statement. J.A. 6. Payne alleges that some of those nearby "stopped talking and looked" at him. Id. Dr. Taslimi evidently apologized, but Payne alleges that the damage was done: other prison staff and inmates had learned that Payne was on HIV medication. Payne filed an array of grievances, which failed to provide relief.

Payne then turned to federal court, filing a pro se action against Dr. Taslimi. See 42 U.S.C. § 1983.1 The district court dismissed Payne's complaint under 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b) for failure to state a claim. Payne timely appealed, and we have jurisdiction. See 28 U.S.C. § 1291. Exercising that jurisdiction, we review de novo the district court's dismissal. Jehovah v. Clarke , 798 F.3d 169, 176 (4th Cir. 2015).

II. Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Claim
A. Stare decisis and precedent

We do not address Payne's Fourteenth Amendment privacy claim on a blank slate. Instead, we write on the ever-present background of stare decisis.

At the Supreme Court, stare decisis "is a principle of policy" and neither "a mechanical formula of adherence" nor an "inexorable command." Payne v. Tennessee , 501 U.S. 808, 828, 111 S.Ct. 2597, 115 L.Ed.2d 720 (1991) (quoting Helvering v. Hallock , 309 U.S. 106, 119, 60 S.Ct. 444, 84 L.Ed. 604 (1940) ). The Supreme Court balances various factors, including the quality of the precedent's reasoning, the workability of the established rule, the reliance interests it has engendered, its consistency with related decisions, and the developments since its prior decision. See Janus v. Am. Fed'n of State, Cnty. & Mun. Emps., Council 31 , ––– U.S. ––––, 138 S. Ct. 2448, 2478–79, 201 L.Ed.2d 924 (2018). For the Supreme Court, the decision of whether to follow precedent is a difficult one, but they have "never felt constrained to" do so. Payne , 501 U.S. at 827, 111 S.Ct. 2597 (quoting Smith v. Allwright , 321 U.S. 649, 665, 64 S.Ct. 757, 88 L.Ed. 987 (1944) ).

But as an inferior court, the Supreme Court's precedents do constrain us. See Agostini v. Felton , 521 U.S. 203, 237, 117 S.Ct. 1997, 138 L.Ed.2d 391 (1997). In looking up to the Supreme Court, we may not weigh the same factors used by the Supreme Court to evaluate its own precedents in deciding whether to follow their guidance. We must simply apply their commands. So even were we to correctly conclude that a Supreme Court precedent contains many "infirmities" and rests on "wobbly, moth-eaten foundations," it remains the Supreme Court's "prerogative alone to overrule one of its precedents." State Oil Co. v. Khan , 522 U.S. 3, 20, 118 S.Ct. 275, 139 L.Ed.2d 199 (1997) (quoting Khan v. State Oil Co. , 93 F.3d 1358, 1363 (7th Cir. 1996) (Posner, J.)). It is beyond our power to disregard a Supreme Court decision, even if we are sure the Supreme Court is soon to overrule it.

Similarly, when a panel of our Court looks horizontally to our own precedents, we must apply their commands as a mechanical mandate. For even though a Fourth Circuit panel possesses the statutory and constitutional power to overrule another panel, we do not do so "as a matter of prudence." McMellon v. United States , 387 F.3d 329, 334 (4th Cir. 2004) (en banc). And that prudential judgment is categorical, so a panel of judges "cannot overrule a decision issued by another panel." Id . at 332–34 (emphasis added); see also id. at 333 (noting that where two panels conflict, we must "follow the earlier of the conflicting opinions"). Only by granting en banc review may we apply stare decisis balancing to overrule precedent set by a prior panel (or a prior en banc court). See id. at 334 ; see also id. at 333 (noting that most other circuits follow the same practice). Thus, unlike the discretionary application of stare decisis by the Supreme Court, we are bound by prior panel decisions.2

That is not to say that everything said in a panel opinion binds future panels.3 We recognize that where we "assum[e] without deciding the validity of antecedent propositions" those assumptions "are not binding in future cases that directly raise the questions." United States v. Norman , 935 F.3d 232, 241 (4th Cir. 2019) (quoting United States v. Verdugo-Urquidez , 494 U.S. 259, 272, 110 S.Ct. 1056, 108 L.Ed.2d 222 (1990) ); see also Webster v. Fall , 266 U.S. 507, 511, 45 S.Ct. 148, 69 L.Ed. 411 (1925). And we also recognize that dictum is not binding. See Pittston Co. v. United States , 199 F.3d 694, 703 (4th Cir. 1999). Dictum is a "statement in a judicial opinion that could have been deleted without seriously impairing the analytical foundations of the holding—that, being peripheral, may not have received the full and careful consideration of the court that uttered it." Id. (quoting United States v. Crawley , 837 F.2d 291, 292 (7th Cir. 1988) (Posner, J.)); see also Cohens v. State of Virginia , 19 U.S. 264, 399–400, 6 Wheat. 264, 5 L.Ed. 257 (1821). If necessary to the outcome, a precedent's reasoning must be followed; otherwise, we are not so bound.4

B. Constitutional right to privacy

Shepherded by these principles, we turn to Payne's claimed constitutional right to privacy. The Supreme Court's guidance is less than illuminating. In its most recent decision on the matter, the Court "assume [d ], without deciding , that the Constitution protects a[n informational] privacy right of the sort mentioned in Whalen [v. Roe , 429 U.S. 589, 97 S.Ct. 869, 51 L.Ed.2d 64 (1977) ] and Nixon [v. Administrator of General Services , 433 U.S. 425, 97 S.Ct. 2777, 53 L.Ed.2d 867 (1977) ]." NASA v. Nelson , 562 U.S. 134, 138, 131 S.Ct. 746, 178 L.Ed.2d 667 (2011) (emphasis added). The Court also recognized that this was its "approach in Whalen ": assume a constitutional right to privacy exists but find that any existing right was not violated. Id. at 147, 131 S.Ct. 746.5

Although this Court's guidance has not been the model of clarity, we have gone beyond assuming. In Walls v. City of Petersburg , Walls claimed that the information required by an employment questionnaire violated her right to privacy. 895 F.2d 188, 189–90 (4th Cir. 1990). We first agreed that "[t]he constitutional right to privacy extends to ... ‘the individual interest in avoiding disclosure of personal matters.’ " Id. at 192 (citing Whalen , 429 U.S. at 599–600, 97 S.Ct. 869 ). But that "right to privacy" protected "only information with respect to which the individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy." Id. at 193 ; see also id. at 192 ("Personal, private information in which an individual has a reasonable expectation of confidentiality is protected by one's constitutional right to privacy.").

Walls, we held, lacked a "reasonable expectation of privacy" in information that was "freely available in public records," including marriages, divorces, children, and arrests or convictions of family members.

Id. at 193–94. We suggested that she maintained a reasonable expectation of privacy in details that were "not part of the public record concerning a divorce, separation, annulment, or the birth of children." Id. at 193. But those non-public details were not implicated in the case because they were not covered by the questionnaire. Id. at 193–94.6

Turning to the "[f]inancial information [ ] requested in the questionnaire," we held that it was "protected by a right to privacy." Id. at 194. As Walls possessed a right to privacy in the financial information, we weighed her privacy interest against the government's interest in disclosure to guard against potential corruption. We found that the government's interest was compelling and determined that it outweighed her right to privacy. We thus concluded that the required disclosure of financial information did not violate her right to privacy.

Walls thus adopted a two-part inquiry, asking first whether "the information sought is entitled to privacy protection," like the financial information from that case. Id. at 192, 194. And, if a right to privacy existed, then...

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