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Former UCLA Medical Center employee Huping Zhou sentenced jail time for looking at private medical files

By Shweta Saraswat

May 5, 2010 10:38 p.m.

A former UCLA Medical Center researcher was sentenced on April 27 to four months in federal prison for looking at the confidential medical records of co-workers and celebrities such as Tom Hanks, Leonardo DiCaprio and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Huping Zhou, 47, entered a conditional guilty plea to the charges in January with plans to appeal.

“I thought it was a harsh sentence,” said Edward Robinson, Zhou’s attorney.

Zhou accessed records over a 3-week period in 2003, beginning immediately after he was fired because of performance concerns.

He is the first person in the nation to be convicted and sentenced for illegally looking at confidential files without selling or improperly using the information, according to U.S. District Attorney’s Office spokesman Thom Mrozek. Zhou has also been fined $2,000 in addition to the jail time.

The defense argued that the UCLA Medical Center did not provide adequate confidentiality training to its employees.

“The (law) at the time Zhou was charged was so convoluted that an ordinary person would not know that merely looking at private information was a federal crime,” Robinson said. “And there is absolutely no evidence that he disseminated the information.”

The court, however, found that Zhou’s extensive professional experience coupled with the fact that most of the privacy violations occurred just after he received his termination notice made it clear that Zhou “chose to break those rules in order to get back at those who terminated him,” according to court documents.

Robinson will appeal the case to the United States District Court, Central District of California.

If the district court agrees with the defense, Zhou will be allowed to withdraw his guilty plea and the trial will begin again.

“The government will then have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that (Zhou) knew looking was a federal offense,” Robinson said. “I think we have a better shot at winning that jury trial.”

The district court’s decision on the appeal is expected within six weeks. If the court denies the appeal, Robinson said he plans to appeal the case to the Ninth Circuit Court.

The UCLA Medical Center maintains that patient confidentiality is a top priority, having placed a number of safeguards to help ensure patient confidentiality in the past two years, according to a university statement. Safeguards include increasing the auditing capabilities of the medical center’s information systems as well as expanding the accountability training all employees and students must go through.

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Shweta Saraswat
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