|Office of the Attorney General - State of Texas
September 7, 2000
Ms. Tenley A. Aldredge
Dear Ms. Aldredge:
You ask whether certain information is subject to required public disclosure under the Public Information Act, chapter 552 of the Government Code. Your request was assigned ID# 138718.
The Travis County Sheriff's Office (the "sheriff's office") received a request for a copy of the medical records and autopsy report for a named individual who died while in a county correctional facility. You state that you plan on releasing the autopsy report, in accordance with applicable law, and claim that the remaining medical records are excepted from disclosure under section 552.101 of the Government Code. We have considered the exception you claim and reviewed the submitted information.
The sheriff's office raises section 552.101 of the Government Code in conjunction with section 5.08 of article 4495b of Vernon's Texas Civil Statutes. Section 552.101 excepts from disclosure "information considered to be confidential by law, either constitutional, statutory, or by judicial decision." This section encompasses information protected by other statutes. We note that the Seventy-sixth Legislature repealed the former Medical Practice Act, article 4495b of Vernon's Texas Civil Statutes, in enacting the new Occupations Code. See Act of May 13, 1999, 76th Leg., R.S., ch. 388, §§ 1, 6, 1999 Tex. Sess. Law Serv. (Vernon) (adopting Occupations Code). The former article 4495b now is codified as the Medical Practice Act at subtitle B of title 3 of the Occupations Code, and the former section 5.08 of article 4495b is codified as chapter 159 of the Occupations Code. Section 159.002(b) of the Occupations Code protects from disclosure "[a] record of the identity, diagnosis, evaluation, or treatment of a patient by a physician that is created or maintained by a physician." The documents you submitted to this office include medical records, access to which is governed by provisions outside the Public Information Act. Medical records may only be released as provided by chapter 159 of the Occupations Code. Open Records Decision No. 598 (1991). The Occupations Code provides for both the confidentiality of medical records and certain statutory access requirements. Id. at 2. Section 159.005(a)(5) provides that consent for the release of medical records must be in writing and signed by, if the patient is deceased, a personal representative of the deceased. Additionally, the written consent must specify the medical records to be covered by the release, the reasons or purposes for the release, and the person to whom the information is to be released. Occ. Code § 159.005(b). In the instant case, we conclude that the requested records fall within the protection of chapter 159; however, the requestors have not provided the three pieces of information necessary to allow release under that chapter. As such, the sheriff's office must withhold the requested medical records.
This letter ruling is limited to the particular records at issue in this request and limited to the facts as presented to us; therefore, this ruling must not be relied upon as a previous determination regarding any other records or any other circumstances.
This ruling triggers important deadlines regarding the rights and responsibilities of the governmental body and of the requestor. For example, governmental bodies are prohibited from asking the attorney general to reconsider this ruling. Gov't Code § 552.301(f). If the governmental body wants to challenge this ruling, the governmental body must appeal by filing suit in Travis County within 30 calendar days. Id. § 552.324(b). In order to get the full benefit of such an appeal, the governmental body must file suit within 10 calendar days. Id. § 552.353(b)(3), (c). If the governmental body does not appeal this ruling and the governmental body does not comply with it, then both the requestor and the attorney general have the right to file suit against the governmental body to enforce this ruling. Id. § 552.321(a).
If this ruling requires the governmental body to release all or part of the requested information, the governmental body is responsible for taking the next step. Based on the statute, the attorney general expects that, within 10 calendar days of this ruling, the governmental body will do one of the following three things: 1) release the public records; 2) notify the requestor of the exact day, time, and place that copies of the records will be provided or that the records can be inspected; or 3) notify the requestor of the governmental body's intent to challenge this letter ruling in court. If the governmental body fails to do one of these three things within 10 calendar days of this ruling, then the requestor should report that failure to the attorney general's Open Government Hotline, toll free, at 877/673-6839. The requestor may also file a complaint with the district or county attorney. Id. § 552.3215(e).
If this ruling requires or permits the governmental body to withhold all or some of the requested information, the requestor can appeal that decision by suing the governmental body. Id. § 552.321(a); Texas Department of Public Safety v. Gilbreath, 842 S.W.2d 408,411 (Tex. App.-Austin 1992, no writ).
Please remember that under the Act the release of information triggers certain procedures for costs and charges to the requestor. If records are released in compliance with this ruling, be sure that all charges for the information are at or below the legal amounts. Questions or complaints about over-charging must be directed to the General Services Commission at 512/475-2497.
If the governmental body, the requestor, or any other person has questions or comments about this ruling, they may contact our office. Although there is no statutory deadline for contacting us, the attorney general prefers to receive any comments within 10 calendar days of the date of this ruling.
Ref: ID# 138718
Encl. Submitted documents
cc: Ms. LaTora Johnson