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What the ADA Says About Employee Medical Information and Social Media

Employees need to be very careful when discussing a co-worker’s health on social media. And, employers need to train their employees about the ADA’s confidentiality rules and the extension of these rules to the 24/7 world of social media.

July 8, 2014
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Related Topics: Legal Compliance, Disability Benefits, Disabilities, Health and Wellness, Policies and Procedures, Legal
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The Americans with Disabilities Act protects, as confidential, employee medical information obtained by an employer.

Last year, I asked the following questions about the impact of social media on this confidentiality obligation:
What happens, however, when an employee suffers an on-the-job injury and a supervisor shares information about the injury on a Facebook wall or Twitter page? Or, what about when a supervisor posts about a co-workers illness? It can be as innocuous as, “I hope John Smith has a quick recovery from cancer,” or spiteful, like, “I can’t believe John Smith has cancer and I have his workload while he’s out on medical leave.”
At the time, my questions were hypothetical, as no court had yet to address the issue. A few weeks ago, however, an Indiana federal court — in Shoun v. Best Formed Plastics — began sketching an answer. 
 
George Shoun took a few weeks off from work to recover from a workplace injury, Jane Stewart, a co-worker, knew about his injury because she was responsible for processing his work-comp claim. Stewart went on her personal Facebook page and posted the following about Shoun: “Isn’t [it] amazing how Jimmy experienced a 5 way heart bypass just one month ago and is back to work, especially when you consider George Shoun’s shoulder injury kept him away from work for 11 months and now he is trying to sue us.” 

Shoun sued his employer, claiming that Stewart’s Facebook post violated the ADA’s confidentiality requirements by “deliberate[ly] disclos[ing] [his] medical condition to another person.”
 
The court denied the company’s motion to dismiss Shoun’s lawsuit. The company claimed that its employee had not violated the ADA because Shoun had voluntarily disclosed his medical condition by filing an earlier iteration of his ADA lawsuit before Stewart made her Facebook post. The court disagreed, concluding that Shoun had not voluntarily disclosed his medical condition to Stewart or anyone else at the company; he only disclosed it via a court filing.
 
All is not lost for employers, however. The court made a clear distinction between unprotected medical information that an employee volunteers to co-workers and protected medical information that an employer learns via an employer-sponsored medical examination or program.
 
Despite this glimmer of hope, employees need to be very careful when discussing a co-worker’s health on social media. And, employers need to train their employees about the ADA’s confidentiality rules and the extension of these rules to the 24/7 world of social media. Employees must understand that confidential medical information — workers’ compensation claims, Family and Medical Leave Act claims, reasonable accommodation requests, and other medical information related to the performance of the job — is off-limits for discussion. 

Social media is informal and instantaneous. Employees often post before they think about the implications of what they are posting. ADA violations are likely the furthest from one’s mind when posting about a co-worker’s injury or medical issue. A policy statement — and, more importantly, training — on this issue could save you from a disability discrimination lawsuit down the road.

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