sharing-secrets_main-imageThis is a story about Scott. He has a medical condition affecting his genito-urinary system. In the words of my two-year old, Maggie, this condition sounds yucky.

Like other employees with a genito-urinary disorder, Scott didn’t want his medical condition broadcast.

To. Anyone.

In requesting FMLA leave for his condition, Scott submitted medical certification containing “sensitive and detailed” information about the ailment.   Thereafter, Scott claimed:

  • A manager blabbed about Scott’s medical condition at a meeting involving eight other employees (Scott apparently was not present); and
  • Coworkers approached him, asking about the condition and making jokes and obscene gestures about his condition in front of him.

Really?  The naive kid in me wonders, “Does this really happen in today’s workplace?

Notably, Scott wasn’t complaining that the employer denied him FMLA leave. In fact, Scott took all the FMLA leave his little heart desired. Rather, Scott argued that his employer violated the FMLA when his managers disclosed his medical condition to those without a need-to-know and when his coworkers ridiculed him for it.

To the court, the issue was a straightforward one. Under the FMLA, confidentiality of medical information is an employee right, and the allegation here is that the employer violated that right. Therefore, even if the employer granted to Scott all the FMLA leave he was entitled, the court found it possible that the employer still “materially affected” Scott’s working conditions when it allegedly breached confidentiality and other employees mocked Scott for his condition.  Holtrey v. Collier County Bd. of Commissioners

Insights for Employers

What are the takeaways from this sad case? Let me count the ways:

  1. Need I remind you? Employers, please train your managers about their obligations under the FMLA! Prohibiting disclosure of sensitive medical information must be covered in that FMLA 101 course you should convene every year. When you don’t train, you end up with lawsuits like this one.
  2. While you’re at it, don’t forget anti-harassment training, too.  When you apparently have employees joking about another employee’s medical condition and making obscene gestures in front of him (whaaat!?!), you have a problem.
  3. Under what circumstances can medical information be shared with others? In its ADA guidance, the EEOC warns that this information can be shared only for extremely limited purposes:
    •  to supervisors and managers where they need medical information in order to provide a reasonable accommodation
    •  to first aid and safety personnel if an employee would need emergency treatment
    •  to individuals investigating compliance with the ADA and with similar state and local laws
    •  pursuant to worker’s compensation laws (e.g., to a state worker’s compensation office in order to evaluate a claim) or for insurance purposes.
  4. Me thinks the employer missed a critical legal argument here — that the FMLA affords no private right of action only for a violation of confidentiality. I don’t want to get my readers bogged down in the legal morass here, but it’s hardly clear that the FMLA allows an employee to sue for this alleged violation. So, we’ll save this argument for another, more appropriate case.