Greene coroner files response to O-R lawsuit seeking records

August 11, 2017
Gregory Rohanna

WAYNESBURG – Greene County Coroner Gregory Rohanna, responding to a lawsuit filed last month by the Observer-Reporter seeking his annual report and records, claims his office is not required by law to make all its records public.

In a response filed Thursday in Greene County Court, Rohanna maintains releasing specific information regarding a person’s death could violate federal and state laws involving medical records, including HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

The Observer-Reporter filed suit July 3 seeking access to Rohanna’s complete 2016 annual report for a story on drug overdose deaths. Coroners are required under section 1251 of the Pennsylvania Coroner’s Act to file annual reports with the county prothonotary and grant access to any “persons interested” who wants to review them.

Rohanna’s office had declined repeated requests to provide the complete annual report.

A partial report given to the newspaper in the form of a spreadsheet indicated 19 people died in 2016 as the result of acute combined drug toxicity overdoses. The spreadsheets include the names and causes and manners of death, but no information about genders and ages of the deceased or when and where the deaths occurred. Some information about the drugs involved were included.

According to the response filed by Rohanna’s attorney, Gregory Hook, the coroner has submitted his records to the prothonotary but he denies all coroner records are subject to public inspection.

In determining the cause and manner of a person’s death, a coroner has access to private medical records, including mental health records, autopsy reports, toxicological reports, DNA screenings and dental records, the response said.

A release of toxicological results, it said, could provide information not only about whether illegal drugs played a role in a person’s death, but whether the person had other medical issues.

The use of certain drugs could indicate a person suffered from mental health problems, HIV, transgender changes, traumatic stress or numerous other illnesses or disorders, the response said.

“While these individuals are dead, they and their families are still subject to harm by the release of private medical information,” the response said.

Federal law prohibits the release of drug information after a person is deceased and state and federal laws prohibit the release of mental health records, the coroner claims.

The coroner’s response also questions whether the newspaper has standing to file an action to seek the records, stating its First Amendment rights “to publish the news is not absolute.”

The newspaper’s First Amendment rights “may sometime give way to the First Amendment rights of an individual to not have the medical records of their loved ones and themselves held out for curiosity, criticism and even ridicule,” the response said.

“Otherwise, we would be creating the virtual world of peeping Toms, albeit a peeping Tom for whom there would be no penalty for its actions of voyeurism.”

The state’s Right to Know Law exempts from public records information covered under any other federal or state law or regulation, the response said.

“Thus it is specifically denied that the plaintiff has suffered any damage by the coroner acting within his discretion in following the law.”

The case has yet to be assigned to a judge.

Bob Niedbala worked as a general assignment reporter for the newspaper for 27 years in the Greene County bureau. He received a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Pittsburgh.

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