Lawsuits: Dept of Human Services, DNR employees breached private data

Categories: Creepy

DHS letter 530.jpg
Above: A letter from the Department of Human Services sent to a plaintiff in the class-action suit.
A Mankato-based law firm filed lawsuits this week against the Department of Human Services and the Department of Natural Resources alleging employees in both state agencies regularly breached the private data of Minnesotans.

Scott Kelly, an attorney bringing the suits, couldn't speculate as to how the two employees chose the people whose information they accessed. But the cases further illuminate the troubling prevalence of state employee abuse of Department of Vehicle Services records, he says. The database contains such information as a person's name, date of birth, driver's license number, address, photo, eye color, height, weight, and driver's license status.

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"It's obvious that the Department of Public Safety cannot control these agencies, and it's obvious that the agencies haven't been able to control their individual employees that have access to this information," says Kelly of the Farrish Johnson Law Office. "It appears the only way to enforce the law is to initiate these lawsuits."

The DNR suit alleges employee John Hunt wrongfully accessed private records 19,000 times between January 2008 and October 2012 in violation of the Drivers Privacy Protection Act. The suit asks for a minimum of $47.5 million.

According to the DNR, Hunt was discharged Jan. 11, and the agency is doubling down on employee training and review of access to the driver's license database.

"This employee not only violated the law, but betrayed the trust of the agency, his supervisors, and fellow employees," said DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr in a statement. "His behavior does not meet the high standards of integrity that we expect from our law enforcement officers or from all employees."

The case against the Department of Human Services alleges that an unnamed employee illegally accessed 1,100 motor vehicle records over a period of 11 months.

The suit cites as defendants the employee, his/her supervisors, the Department of Human Services, agency commissioner Lucinda Jesson, and the state of Minnesota. It asks for a minimum of $2.75 million. A letter from DHS addressed to one of the defendants suggests the employee no longer works for the state agency.

The firm also has a pending suit against Rock County alleging a social worker wrongfully accessed about 4,000 driver's license records.

The state will soon start cracking down on misuse of the system, according to lawyers for Anne Marie Rasmusson, a former cop who has won more than $1 million in settlements since discovering her private information was wrongfully accessed by law enforcement hundreds of times. As part of a settlement with the state, the Department of Public Safety will put in new safeguards to catch abusers of the database, including regular audits of the most-searched names, says Rasmusson's attorney.

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