EEOC laws don't oblige you to put up with breaches of confidential data

by on May 21, 2009 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Info Center

Court puts limits on what info employees can use against you

Here’s a court decision that makes a lot of sense: Despite EEOC laws and protections, employees can’t rifle freely through confidential company files looking for evidence of illegal employment practices.

This ruling comes out of a case in Ohio.

An employee joined a class action lawsuit against her employer. She was then disciplined, and felt she was being punished for taking part in the suit. When the class action lawyer asked her for any documents that might help the suit, the employee searched company files. She sent a bunch of documents that had nothing to do with the class action, but rather – she thought – with a separate case under EEOC laws for retaliation that she expected to file. She did bring an EEOC retaliation charge shortly thereafter. Shortly after she was fired for improperly distributing confidential documents, she filed her retaliation suit. A federal court said she had no case.

Title VII and EEOC laws didn’t protect her release of documents to the lawyer, because it included material – confidential customer data – that a reasonable person wouldn’t consider relevant to any Title VII complaint.

Points To Consider

This case makes a couple of points for HR to ponder about confidentiality practices vs. employee right under EEOC laws:

  • Define confidential info carefully. It may not be a good idea, for instance, to punish employees for giving a lawyer their own e-mail correspondence.
  • Consider how an employee came by confidential material he’s shared with a lawyer. If he obtained it accidentally or innocently, you’re on shaky ground disciplining him.

Cite: Niswander v. Cincinnati Ins. Co., No. 07-3738, 6th Cir., 6/24/08.

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