A complaint was recently filed in the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island by Gabrielle Lisnoff against her doctor, Michael Stein, M.D. The complaint alleges that Dr. Stein intruded upon Ms. Lisnoff’s seclusion, appropriated her likeness, gave unreasonable publicity to her private life and intentionally inflicted emotional distress. The complaint stems from publication of Dr. Stein’s book, The Addict: One Patient, One Doctor, One Year, which according to the complaint is about the plaintiff’s “life and history with drug addiction.” Apparently, Ms. Lisnoff was treated by Dr. Stein from “approximately 2005 through approximately 2010” when, during the course of “purporting to treat the Plaintiff”, Dr. Stein “elicited private facts and stories from her and probed into her personal affairs.” The complaint states that in or about late March, 2009, Ms. Lisnoff was conducting online research for a college class when she discovered Dr. Stein’s book. After purchasing the book, to her “shock, surprise and dismay, many of the stories contained in the book were quoted from what she had told the Defendant during her treatment sessions or were closely adapted from private facts that she had confidentially shared with him during her appointments with him for treatment.”
Without delving deeply into the particular facts of this complaint as they appear to be rather sparse and, naturally, drawn only from the plaintiff’s purview, it is worth using this complaint and its filing to at least revisit the heart of privacy law, namely the privacy torts. Today, privacy law is implicated in everything from social media to mobile apps to big data to GPS tracking and technology breaches, so it might be worth taking just a moment to remember the kinds of privacy breaches that were applicable a hundred years ago before technology and ease of informational access changed the nature of the conversation. The privacy breaches I am referring to are (i) public disclosure of private facts, (ii) intrusion upon seclusion, (iii) false light and (iv) appropriation of name and likeness. Each of these represents a fairly distinct type of privacy tort (although early cases sometimes seemed to intertwine the “public disclosure” and “seclusion” torts) defined specifically on a state level, but generally in the Restatement (Second). For a good analysis of these torts, I would recommend the classic article by William Prosser titled Privacy, 48 Cal. L. Rev. 383 (1960). It can be found here.