Allegations that manager disclosed confidential medical information advance FMLA claims

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By Joy Waltemath

By Kathleen Kapusta, J.D.

Allegations that his employer breached his right to confidentiality under the FMLA when a manager disclosed his serious health condition to his coworkers and subordinates, and that the coworkers and subordinates then made jokes and obscene gestures about his condition in front of him, were enough to support an employee’s FMLA interference claim, a federal court in Florida ruled, denying the employer’s motion to dismiss. And because the court was “hard pressed” to find that disclosing confidential information about his genito-urinary system did not materially affect his working conditions, his retaliation claim also advanced (Holtrey v. Collier County Board of County Commissioners, January 12, 2017, Chappell, S.).

Suffering from a chronic and serious health condition with his genito-urinary system, the employee applied for and was granted FMLA leave. His leave application purportedly included sensitive and detailed medical information. At a subsequent staff meeting, which the employee did not attend, a management-level employee allegedly disclosed the employee’s condition to eight of his coworkers and subordinates, who then approached the employee and “frequently made fun of him,” making jokes and obscene gestures in front of him. Although he complained, his employer allegedly failed to remedy the situation.

Interference. Moving to dismiss his FMLA interference claim, the employer argued that the employee failed to allege it denied him any FMLA benefits. Observing that an interference of rights occurs when an employer interferes with, restrains, or denies the exercise or attempted exercise of rights or benefits under the FMLA, the court also noted that in addition, 29 C.F.R. Sec. 825.500(g) provides that “[r]ecords and documents relating to certifications, recertifications or medical histories of employees or employees’ family members, created for purposes of FMLA, shall be maintained as confidential medical records in separate files/records from the usual personnel files.”

Private right of action? While it is unsettled, the court pointed out, whether this provision gives rise to a private right of action for disclosure, the employer only challenged the sufficiency of the employee’s claim and not whether there was a private right of action under Section 825.500. Construing all factual allegations in the employee’s complaint as true, the court found he sufficiently alleged a right of confidentiality and that his employer breached that right when it disclosed his protected medical information during a staff meeting and without his permission.

Unpersuaded by the employer’s argument that his claim failed because he was granted FMLA leave, the court explained that the issue was whether confidentiality is a right under the FMLA and whether the employer interfered with that right. While “district courts conflict on whether a disclosure of an employee’s medical information constitutes an interference claim under FMLA,” the court found that “the enforcing labor regulation makes clear that confidentiality of medical information is a right provided and protected under the FMLA.”

Hostile work environment. As to the employer’s argument that the employee’s claim should fail because he did not sufficiently allege a hostile work environment, the court pointed out that although he didn’t allege a traditional Title VII hostile work environment, he alleged that his employer interfered with his FMLA rights by disclosing his confidential medical information to his coworkers and subordinates, which resulted in a work environment riddled with obscene gestures and jokes at his expense. Accepting his allegations at true, the court found the employee sufficiently alleged an FMLA interference claim.

Retaliation. Turning to his FMLA retaliation claim, the court noted that the parties squared off over whether the employee suffered an adverse employment action. He alleged that the disclosure of his confidential FMLA information constituted a materially adverse action because it resulted in his coworkers making repeated and frequent jokes and obscene gestures about his condition were sufficient to constitute an adverse employment action. These allegations, said the court, were sufficient to state an adverse employment action.

Source:: Employment Law Daily Newsfeed


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