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When Is Confidential Medical Information Not Confidential?

While this case is a great holding for employers, businesses should still tread carefully when dealing with employee medical information. This area of the law remains risky waters in which companies swim.

November 26, 2012
Related Topics: Background Checks & Investigations, Disabilities, Discrimination and EEOC Compliance, Policies and Procedures
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The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that employers treat employee medical information obtained from "medical examinations and inquiries … as a confidential medical record." In Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, the 7th Circuit recently decided the extent to which that confidentiality requirements applies when an employee volunteers medical information to an employer.

Gary Messier worked for Trivent as a business analyst, and during his first four months of employment developed a reputation for letting his employer know when he would be absent from work. When he failed to report to work one day, his supervisor emailed looking for a report and explanation. In response, Messier sent an email detailing his long battle with migraine headaches.

Messier quit one month later, but had trouble finding a new job. When three jobs fell through after a reference check, he hired a company to conduct a fake reference check for him. In response, his former supervisor at Trivent said that Messier "has medical conditions where he gets migraines."

Based on that statement, the EEOC brought suit on Messier's behalf for a violation of the ADA's confidentiality requirements.

In affirming the district court's dismissal of the lawsuit, the 7th Circuit examined the plain language of the ADA.

The EEOC argued that the ADA's confidentiality provisions protect all employee medical information revealed through "job-related" inquiries.

The 7th Circuit disagreed:

The subject matter discussed in the body of section (d) confirms that the word "inquiries" does not refer to all generalized inquiries, but instead refers only to medical inquiries. The entire section is devoted to a discussion of a disabled employee's "medical record," "medical condition or history," "medical files," and medical "treatment."

Instead, the Court concluded that the ADA's confidentiality requirements only apply to medical information provided by an employee in response to a medical examination (not an issue in this case) or a medical inquiry.

Because Trivent had not made a medical inquiry before Messier sent his email detailing his migraines, any disclosure it made did not violate the ADA.

[P]revious courts have required—at minimum—that the employer already knew something was wrong with the employee before initiating the interaction in order for that interaction to constitute a [protected] inquiry. There is no evidence in the record suggesting that Thrivent … should have inferred that Messier's absence on November 1, 2006 was due to a medical condition. There is no evidence in the record that Messier had been sickly during his first four months of employment. There is no evidence that Messier had experienced a headache at work during his first four months. For all Thrivent … knew, Messier's absence was just as likely due to a non-medical condition as it was due to a medical condition. Indeed, as Thrivent pointed out to the district court, "Messier could have had transportation problems, marital problems, weather-related problems, housing problems, criminal problems, motivational problems, a car or home accident, or perhaps he simply decided to quit his job…."

Thus, Thrivent was not required to treat the medical information that Messier sent in response to the email as a confidential medical record. Accordingly, Thrivent did not violate (and could not have violated) the ADA by revealing Messier's migraine condition to anyone, including to prospective employers.

While this case is a great holding for employers, businesses should still tread carefully when dealing with employee medical information. This area of the law remains risky waters in which companies swim.

Written by Jon Hyman, a partner in the Labor & Employment group of Kohrman Jackson & Krantz. For more information, contact Jon at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com.

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