A Suffolk Superior Court judge ruled Thursday that Steward Health Care System has no right to review the reporting or records collected by The Boston Globe for a yet-to-be-published article about a man’s journey through the mental health care system.
Judge Jeffrey Locke said the for-profit health care company may comment broadly to the newspaper and answer limited questions on the patient’s care without violating medical privacy laws.
Steward, in a suit filed against the Globe Wednesday, asked the court to permit release of the patient’s private medical records, which the company said it needed to rebut a Globe story that is scheduled to be published this weekend.
The court said Steward cannot release any additional medical records or specific medical information related to the patient.
“We are gratified that the court has confirmed our right to report and publish this story,” said Globe spokeswoman Ellen Clegg.
Herbert L. Holtz, a lawyer representing the hospital chain, said the judge’s decision granted Steward what it had wanted all along, to “attain the right, which we did, to speak to the medical issues being posed to us by the Globe about a former patient.”
“The Globe was never the real defendant here,” Holtz added. “The only thing we were asking for was the ability to speak.”
The patient, identified in court papers as John Doe, said: “I’m just glad that the judge said the hospital should follow federal law and that it’s not a free-for-all. That would have been crazy.”
At one point during the hearing, Locke cleared the public from the courtroom so he could speak privately with the man whose life Globe reporter Jenna Russell has spent the past 18 months documenting.
The patient, who will be identified in Russell’s story, said he does not want the company to release additional records because he believes it would use them for “character assassination.”
“They’re saying I’m delusional and I have no credibility,” he said.
In its suit against the Globe, Steward alleged the newspaper “aims to unfairly malign and assassinate the reputation” of the company, which owns and operates 10 hospitals and a rehabilitation facility in Greater Boston.
Steward’s court complaint also referred to the patient, though not by name, as a necessary party to the suit. Though the hospital company is not seeking any damages from the patient, Steward served legal papers on the patient Wednesday evening.
“What we object to is Steward’s thinly-veiled intimidation tactic against a former patient,” Globe editor Brian McGrory, said in a statement issued before the hearing. “The fact that the company dispatched a constable, at dusk, to the house of a man with a history of mental illness is somewhere between appalling and unconscionable.
“We are very comfortable with our exhaustively researched story about one family’s frustrating journey through the mental health system in Massachusetts. This kind of work is why we exist as a newspaper.”
In response, Holtz said the dispute “is not about the patient; it is about the journalistic integrity of the Globe’s reporting and the incomplete factual record on which it is proceeding.
“Therefore, Steward served the former patient in fairness to provide him both notice of the matter, which the Globe initiated through its reporting, and to give him the chance, if he wanted it, to appear in court and be heard,” Holtz said in a statement issued before the hearing.
Russell reported the story over the past 18 months, intimately observing the family’s efforts to cope with the cycle of challenges presented by the disease. It documents his interaction with a variety of psychiatric facilities, including two owned by Steward, as well as the court system.
Steward, whose representatives have not been provided a draft of the story but have been informed of its nature, alleged that the Globe intends to publish “untrue” and potentially damaging claims the patient made about his treatment at Steward facilities, according to the complaint.
Russell has asked the company for comment on the patient’s allegations of mistreatment at a Steward facility. In e-mails with newsroom staff, Steward raised concerns about the fairness of the piece and asked that the newspaper strike any mention of the patient’s interactions with the hospital or any critiques of the care he received unless he signed a release agreeing that the hospital could comment.
Steward, in the complaint, alleges that the Globe story has been crafted with incomplete medical records and that Steward is prohibited by medical privacy laws “from rebutting these untrue allegations and/or providing material facts related to this patient’s care.”
“Denied the opportunity to respond to these scurrilous allegations and to provide the Globe with all of the relevant facts, Steward is faced with the certain and immediate specter of an irreparably damaging, one-sided attack on its delivery of health care to its patients,” the complaint says.