Disclosing an Employee’s Medical Condition May Result in an Automatic FMLA Violation

By January 25, 2017HR, Public Blogs, Training

This employee has a medical condition affecting his genito-urinary system.

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

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

  • A manager blabbed about the employee’s medical condition at a meeting involving eight other employees (the employee 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.

Notably, the employee wasn’t complaining that the employer denied him FMLA leave. In fact, the employee took all the FMLA leave his little heart desired. Rather, the employee 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 the employee all the FMLA leave he was entitled, the court found it possible that the employer still “materially affected” the employee’s working conditions when it allegedly breached confidentiality and other employees mocked the employee for his condition.

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 ), 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.

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