People often think of the Americans with Disabilities Act as a law that protects individuals with physical and mental disabilities from discrimination or other unfair treatment. What is seldom mentioned is that the ADA also protects the confidentiality of employee medical information, and requires that employers keep all such information confidential.
There are some exceptions that allow limited disclosure of protected medical information by employers, including when the employee voluntarily discloses his or her own medical information to co-workers. In that instance, the employee cannot claim a breach of confidentiality if their information is released to other co-workers.
This exception was recently tested in a case out of the Federal district court in Indiana called Shoun v. Best Formed Plastics, 28 F. Supp. 3d 768 (N.D. Ind. 2014). There, the employee – Shoun – alleged that his former employer violated the ADA by divulging confidential medical information to others via a posting on Facebook. Shoun was injured at work, spent months on leave recovering, and sought to collect workers' compensation benefits as a result of the injury. While out on leave and seeking these benefits, a co-worker of Shoun's responsible for processing his workers' compensation claim learned of the nature and extent of his injuries.
Shoun then filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging different violations of the ADA. During the course of this lawsuit, the co-worker posted the following message on her personal Facebook page: "Isn't [it] amazing that 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's trying to sue us." Based on this posting, he alleged a new claim against the employer for violating the ADA's confidentiality and disclosure provisions.
The employer moved to dismiss this ADA claim, arguing that Shoun voluntarily disclosed his medical condition through the original filing of his ADA lawsuit, prior to the Facebook post. The court disagreed and allowed the claim to go forward, concluding that disclosure via a court filing was not a "voluntary" disclosure that met the exception under the statute.
This decision teaches us that employers must use great caution when discussing a co-worker's health condition on social media, or anywhere else for that matter. Training on the ADA's confidentiality and medical information disclosure rules is especially important, given that this is an oft-overlooked part of the law. Employers need to understand that the concept of confidential medical information is broad-ranging, and includes workers' compensation claim files, FMLA claims, reasonable accommodation requests, and other medical information related to the performance of one's job. Such information should always be off-limits for discussion.
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