Thursday, January 26, 2017

Releasing an Employee's Medical Information May Violate FMLA

A Federal District Court in Florida recently denied an employer's Rule 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss a federal Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") alleging both interference and retaliation.  Though the Court did signal some difficulties the Plaintiff *may* have pursuing his claim with these facts under the FMLA, for purposes of whether his complaint was sufficiently plead, the Court ruled that it was and may proceed to discovery.

The plaintiff, Scott Holtrey, worked for the defendant, Collier County Board of County Commissioners since 2006 and in June 2015, he developed a chronic and serious health condition with his genitourinary system.  Halter applied for leave under the FMLA and his application included 'sensitive and detailed medical information.'  The defendant approved Holtrey's FMLA leave request. Unbeknownst to Holtrey, a management-level employees allegedly disclosed his condition to his coworkers and subordinates at a staff meeting that he did not attend.  Approximately eight (8) coworkers and subordinates learned of Holtrey's medical condition and these coworkers and subordinates approached Holtrey to inquire about his condition and "frequently make fun of him."  The complaint also stated that the "subordinate employees have been making jokes and obscene gestures about [his] condition in front of him."  Holtrey sought corrective action but the Defendant file to remedy the situation.  As a result, Holtrey filed this action under the FMLA alleging claims for FMLA interference and retaliation for Defendant's alleged breaching of his confidentiality under the FMLA.  The Defendant filed a Rule 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss the complaint arguing that Holtrey failed to allege that he was denied his FMLA benefits or engaged in an adverse employment action resulting in damages.  The defendant argues that it approved and Holtrey received his FMLA leave and that his FMLA interference claim fails because Holtrey did not adequately allege a hostile work environment.

FMLA Interference

FMLA interference occurs when an employer interferes with, restrains, or denies the exercise or attempted exercise of rights or benefits under the FMLA.  An employee alleging a claim of interference "need only demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that he was entitled to the benefit denied."  Additionally, "records 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."  However, the Court noted a potential issue moving forward as they stated, "it is unsettled whether this provision gives rise to a private right of action for disclosure."  Because the Defendant was only challenging the sufficiency of Holtrey's claim and not whether there is a private right of action, the Court denied the motion to dismiss on this claim.

The Court wa also not persuaded by Defendant's argument that the interference claim fails because Holtrey, by his own admission, was granted leave.  The issue in this case is whether confidentiality is a right under the FMLA and whether Defendant interfered with that right.  The court further stated, "although district courts conflict on whether a disclosure of an employee's medical information constitutes an interference claim under FMLA, the Court finds that the enforcing labor regulation makes clear that confidentiality of medical information is a right provided and protected under the FMLA."

The Court also upheld Holtrey's hostile work environment claim because he alleged the Defendant 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.  The Court concluded that this sufficiently alleged that this altered his work conditions.

FMLA Retaliation

To succeed on an FMLA retaliation claim, an employee must demonstrate that her employer intentionally discriminated against her in the form of an adverse employment action for having exercised an FMLA right.  To sufficiently allege a retaliation claim, the employee must show, "1) he engaged in a statutorily protected activity; 2) he suffered an adverse employment decision; and 3) the decision was causally related to the protected activity.  The parties squared over the second element.

As with retaliation claims under Title VII, a challenged employment action is "materially adverse" if it well might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a claim under the FMLA.  Holtrey alleged that Defendant's disclosure of his confidential FMLA information constitutes a materially adverse action because it resulted in his co-workers making repeated and frequent jokes and obscene gestures about his condition.  The Court further stated, "at this early stage of litigation, the Court is hard-pressed to find that disclosing confidential medical information about an individual's genito-urinary system to that employee's coworkers and subordinates does not materially affect his working conditions.

The case is  Holtrey v. Collier County Bd. of Commissioners


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