Middle District Court of Tennessee
No. 03:06-0900, 2008 WL 152780
January 14, 2008
Keywords: ADA -general, employment, enforcement, job-related inquiry, legal concepts, tangible inquiry, voluntary disclosure
Facts of the Case
“John Doe” began working part time at Ford Motor Credit Company (Ford) in June 2000 and began full-time employment with Ford in March 2001. In 2002 Mr. Doe was diagnosed with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and his primary care physician enrolled him in a study that paid for his HIV medications. The study took place at Vanderbilt Comprehensive Care Center and required Mr. Doe to go to the Center once a week, between Tuesday and Thursday, to give a blood samples. Mr. Doe did not want to tell his direct supervisor, Chandra Chisom, about his diagnosis because he feared that Ms. Chisom would share the information with his co-workers. Therefore, Mr. Doe asked his manager Danny Dunson for a schedule that would accommodate his need for the weekly blood draws.
At first, Mr. Doe explained he would need the schedule accommodation due to a “medical condition,” but Mr. Dunson required a specific diagnosis because he believed he would need to distinguish this accommodation request from others. Pressed for a diagnosis, Mr. Doe told Mr. Dunson he was diagnosed with HIV. Mr. Dunson subsequently referred him to occupational health nurse, Sue Geisen, an independent contractor. Nurse Geisen informed Mr. Doe of his rights under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and that he did not have to disclose or discuss his medical information with anyone but her. Nurse Geisen also informed Mr. Doe that he was to provide her with his medical records and any FMLA requests. She did not discuss with him how to respond to a supervisors request for such information.
In early 2002, Mr. Dunson explained to Mr. Doe that Ms. Chisom had been giving him “a hard time” for not telling her why Mr. Doe was given a schedule accommodation. Mr. Doe told Mr. Dunson that he did not want Ms. Chisom to know about his diagnosis, and Mr. Dunson complied. However, a few weeks later, Mr. Dunson again explained to Mr. Doe that Ms. Chisom wanted to know about Mr. Doe’s schedule accommodation. Nonetheless, after Mr. Doe explained only Nurse Geisen was to have that information, Mr. Dunson called Ms. Chisom into his office and told her about Mr. Doe’s HIV status.
Thereafter, Ms. Chisom told Mr. Doe that she would be keeping a file of his medical excuses at her desk, and Mr. Doe complied finding it difficult to refuse the request of an immediate supervisor. Ms. Chisom was later informed by her supervisors that she was not allowed to keep such files and she returned the medical excuses to Mr. Doe.
Between February and April 2005, Ms. Chisom told two of Mr. Doe’s coworkers about his HIV status and one of those coworkers admits to sharing Mr. Doe’s HIV status with a third coworker. Mr. Doe suffered shame, embarrassment, and depression as a result of Ms. Chisom’s disclosure. He sought medical treatment and took a leave of absence to get through these issues, and upon returning to work he was laid off but later rehired.
Issues of the Case
- Did Mr. Doe voluntarily disclose his medical information?
- If Mr. Dunson did make an inquiry about Mr. Doe’s medical condition was this inquiry job related and thus subject to the ADA’s confidentiality requirement?
- Did Mr. Doe suffer a “tangible injury” due to Ms. Chisom’s disclosure of his HIV status?
Arguments & Analysis
Mr. Doe argued both the actions of Ms. Chisom and Mr. Dunson were unlawful disclosures under the ADA. Ms. Chisom acted by telling Mr. Doe’s coworkers about his medical condition and Mr. Dunson acted by telling Ms. Chisom of Mr. Doe’s condition despite his specific request of Mr. Dunson not to share the information with Ms. Chisom.
Ford argued this case is not a matter that should go before a jury because Mr. Doe disclosed his medical information voluntarily and, therefore, the information was not protected under the ADA. Ford further argued, even if the information was not voluntarily disclosed, Ms. Chisom’s inquiry was not job related thus there is no requirement of confidentiality. Lastly, Ford argued even if there was a disclosure of confidential information, Mr. Doe suffered no “tangible injury” and as such there is no reason to allow this case to go to a jury.
Ruling on Ford’s arguments, the Court first decided, there is an argument for a jury to determine if the disclosure of Mr. Doe’s information was voluntary. The Court relied on Doe v. United States Postal Service, where the D.C. Circuit Court found, when employers require their employees to get a medical evaluation to satisfy the requirements of the FMLA for a leave of absence, the employee is not considered to have volunteered his/her medical information. It simply means the employee followed the requirements of the employer to receive the leave accommodation. In the current case, Mr. Doe’s disclosure of his medical condition as an explanation for his requested schedule accommodation also is not a voluntarily disclosure.
Next, the Court determined Mr. Dunson’s inquiry was job related because the ADA indicates that a modified work schedule may be a reasonable accommodation. The Court further explained that a reasonable person could assume, when a person requests a schedule accommodation it is likely the person is not capable of fully performing the job. Therefore, Mr. Dunson’s inquiry about Mr. Doe’s condition was job related because knowing if an employee can perform their job is consistent with business necessity. Consequently, as a job related inquiry it was subject to the ADA’S confidentiality requirement.
Finally, because a tangible injury is necessary to bring a suit under the ADA’s confidentiality requirement, Mr. Doe needed to show he suffered some tangible injury in order to justify allowing this case to go to a jury. Here, the Court decided, Mr. Doe did suffer a “tangible injury” because he suffered shame, embarrassment, and depression as a result of Ms. Chisom’s actions. Because Courts have found injuries such as these tangible, and no Court has held these injuries to be intangible, this Court held Mr. Doe’s injuries to be tangible.
Policy & Practice
Disclosing a medical condition to explain a need for an accommodation is not a voluntary disclosure and as such is job related. Furthermore, this information is protected as confidential under the ADA, and if the information is not treated as confidential, the employee can seek recovery even if they did not suffer any specific economic damage.
These materials do not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon in any individual case. Please consult an attorney licensed in your state for legal advice and/or representation. These materials were prepared by the legal research staff of the Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University in partnership with the Southeast ADA Center to highlight legal and policy developments relevant to civil rights protections and the impact of court decisions in the Southeast Region under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These materials are based on federal disability rights laws and court decisions in effect at the time of publication. Federal and state disability rights law can change at any time. In addition, state and local laws and regulations may provide different or additional protections. Materials are intended solely as informal guidance, and are neither a determination of your legal rights nor responsibilities under the ADA or other federal, state, and local laws, nor binding on any agency with enforcement responsibility under the ADA. The accuracy of any information contained herein is not warranted. Any links to external websites are provided as a courtesy and are not intended to nor do they constitute an endorsement of the linked materials.