United States: Employer's Use Of DNA Test To Catch Employee Engaging In Inappropriate Workplace Behavior Violates Federal Law, Says U.S. District Judge

If someone continually, yet anonymously, defecated on the floor of your workplace, you'd probably want to use any and all legal means at your disposal to identify and discipline the perpetrator.  Your methods might include surveillance or perhaps some form of forensic or other testing to link the offensive conduct to a specific individual.  You would probably not be overly concerned that your efforts to rid the workplace of this malefactor might give rise to a discrimination claim, but is that really a safe assumption?

Background

In a case exemplifying the gentility of labor-management relations, a Georgia federal court grappled with how far an employer may go in this situation.  In Lowe v. Atlas Logistics Group Retail Services, LLC, (N.D.Ga. May 5, 2015), the employer, Atlas Logistics Group Retail Services (Atlanta), LLC, which provides long-haul transportation and storage services for the grocery industry, discovered in 2012 that one or more employees had been using a common area in one of its warehouses as a lavatory.  As part of its investigation into this matter, the company retained the services of a DNA testing lab and requested cheek swabs from two employees it considered suspects so that it could compare their DNA with that of the mystery defecator.  After Atlas determined that neither employee was responsible for the unwelcome contributions to its workplace, the employees filed a lawsuit alleging that the company violated the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) by requesting and requiring them to provide genetic information.

GINA prohibits discrimination on the basis of genetic characteristics and makes it unlawful for an employer to request, require or purchase genetic information with respect to an employee.

The Court Finds Atlas Violated GINA

The court held that Atlas' argument that GINA only prohibited genetic testing that revealed an individual's propensity for disease – which the test in this case did not do – was inconsistent with the statute's text and legislative history as well as the applicable EEOC regulation.  In the court's view, this argument "render[ed] other language in GINA superfluous."  In particular, the court noted that the statute contained specific exceptions permitting certain testing that did not involve an individual's propensity for disease, and if testing revealing a propensity for disease were the only prohibited testing, then those exceptions would not have been necessary.  The court further rejected Atlas' argument that GINA's legislative history demonstrated an intent to limit violations to testing that revealed a propensity for disease, explaining that although a group of senators favored this interpretation during the legislative debate, all of the evidence indicated that Congress chose to reject this view in favor of a broad construction.  Finally, the court held that an EEOC regulation listing eight examples of "genetic tests" did not support Atlas' narrow definition of that term because the list included testing that also did not relate to one's propensity for disease and, therefore, "would go beyond the scope of the statute" if the law were as narrow as Atlas claimed.

Conclusion

This case's distasteful facts, which will undoubtedly remind many human resource specialists how coarse employee relations challenges often are in practice, should not distract employers that currently perform DNA tests from the fact that GINA may apply more broadly than some initially believed.  Although the decision should not have a significant impact on the narrow range of situations where workplace DNA testing is a legitimate practice, such as those involving health and safety concerns, it should serve as notice to employers investigating misconduct that they should find methods other than DNA testing to identify culpable employees.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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