Was forced disclosure against FMLA regulations?

by on January 14, 2010 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Info Center

Ed Gegley had been Bruce White’s manager for several years, but he had never seen Bruce this angry.

“You and I both know that the day I went out on FMLA leave,” said Bruce, his voice rising, “not one single person in this office knew I was HIV-positive.”

“True,” said Ed, “but…”

Bruce interrupted. “And the day I got back everyone was talking about my medical condition. Ed, you had access to my medical records. You must have looked at them, and you had to have told people about my condition.”

“I didn’t even look at your diagnosis until you started accusing me of blabbing,” Ed insisted. “Besides, has anyone made fun of you? Has anyone discriminated against you, Bruce? No! People around here have rallied around you. I see you eating lunch with your coworkers. No one’s excluding you.”

“The information I gave you about my condition was confidential,” said Bruce. “The company violated my rights, and FMLA regulations, by disclosing it.”

Was disclosure really voluntary?

“My recollection is that you provided that information voluntarily when you applied for FMLA leave,” Ed replied. “You took the risk that people would learn you’re HIV-positive.”

“Voluntary, my foot!” said Bruce. “You sent me a warning stating that if I didn’t include an explanation of my medical condition with my leave application, I could be subject to discipline under FMLA regulations. You call that ‘voluntary?’”

“Look,” said Ed. “I’m sorry that the word got out. I don’t know how that happened, but it was completely unintentional.”

Bruce sued his employer, claiming that he hadn’t disclosed his condition voluntarily, but involuntarily. And his employer had failed to guard the information adequately, as FMLA regulations require.

Did he win?

The decision

Initially, Bruce lost. But an appeals court reversed the decision.

This case teaches an important lesson about FMLA and confidentiality: There’s a distinction between making a voluntary disclosure and responding to an employer’s inquiry.

In court, Bruce’s employer argued that Bruce had disclosed his diagnosis voluntarily. And because the disclosure was voluntary, the employer hadn’t been obligated to protect the information as carefully as it would have, had he been forced to disclose it during an employer inquiry.

The court was swayed when Bruce presented the letter he’d received prior to his leave. Its message was clear: disclose your diagnosis or face disciplinary action.

Bruce was responding to an inquiry, said the court, not voluntarily disclosing information. Because it was an employer inquiry, the employer was, under the FMLA, bound to protect that information.

FMLA regulations state that it is perfectly legal to require an employee to furnish information about his medical condition when he applies for FMLA leave. But in this case, the employee didn’t volunteer the information at first. So the employer threatened disciplinary action. Only then did he provide the information. As such, FMLA regulations say that the employer should have held the information in the strictest of confidence.

Cite: Doe v. U.S. Postal Service, U.S. District Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit, No. 01-5395, 2/7/03. Fictionalized for dramatic effect.

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