Lawsuit claims IRS agents illegally seized medical records

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A class-action lawsuit filed in federal court in San Diego says 15 IRS agents illegally seized the medical records of more than 10 million Americans, including California judges and their families, members of the Screen Actors Guild and Major League Baseball players.

The lawsuit, filed last month in Superior Court by Malibu, Calif., lawyer Robert E. Barnes on behalf of an unnamed firm — identified in court records as the “John Doe Company” — seeks $25,000 in compensatory damages for each victim for violations of Fourth Amendment rights, which guard against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The lawsuit comes at a time the IRS is under heavy criticism for its targeting of conservative groups for extra scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has ordered an investigation to determine if the activities amount to criminal behavior.

“This is an action involving the corruption and abuse of power by several Internal Revenue Service agents during a raid of John Doe Company, in the southern district of California, on March 11, 2011,” the lawsuit says. “In a case involving solely a tax matter involving a former employee of the company, these agents stole more than 60,000,000 medical records of more than 10,000,000 Americans, including at least 1,000,000 Californians.”

The John Doe Company is identified in the lawsuit only as a Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act secure facility, which means that the records it maintains include sensitive patient data that requires security measures to be followed.

The lawsuit says no search warrant or subpoena authorized the seizure of the company’s records; none of the 10 million Americans named in them were under any kind of known criminal or civil investigation; and the medical records had no relevance to the IRS search.

It says a search warrant authorized the seizure of financial records related principally to a former employee of the company, but did not authorize the seizure of medical records of any other person, least of all third parties unrelated to the investigation.

According to the lawsuit, the agents seized personal mobile phones, including all the data and information on those phones, without employing proper screening methods to protect private and privileged information, the seizure of which was unauthorized by the search warrant.

The lawsuit also says company executives warned the IRS agents about the privileged nature of the records, but the agents “ignored and discarded” each of the warnings and ignored their own rules and ethical requirements. It says the agents seized the records under the “threat of destroying company property.”

IRS officials did not respond to inquiries for comment.

According to the lawsuit, the medical records contained “intimate and private information,” including medical treatments, psychological and gynecological counseling, sexual or drug treatments, and a “wide range of medical matters covering the most intimate and private of concerns.”

“Despite knowing that these medical records were not within the scope of the warrant, defendants threatened to ‘rip’ the servers containing the medical data out of the building if IT personnel would not voluntarily hand them over,” the suit says.

The lawsuit also says the agents, after seizing the documents, used John Doe Company’s media system to watch the NCAA basketball tournament and ordered pizza and soft drinks. The lawsuit said the agents’ actions after the search illustrated “their complete disregard of the court’s order and the plaintiffs’ Fourth Amendment rights.”

Saying the IRS refused to disclose which agents participated in the raid, who saw the medical records, and where the records are today, the lawsuit asks the court to order the IRS to return the records and expunge them from any government databases.

Mr. Barnes did not return calls to his office Tuesday for comment.

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