An employer’s leaking of an employee’s confidential medical information may give rise to a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12112(d). “The purpose of the ADA is to ‘invoke the sweep of Congressional authority . . . in order to address the major areas of discrimination faced day-to-day by people with disabilities,’ . . . .” Carparts Distrib. Ctr. v. Automotive Wholesaler’s Ass’n, 37 F.3d 12, 19 (1st Cir. 1994), quoting 42 U.S.C § 12101(b). Congress enacted the statute to “provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities.” 42 U.S.C. § 12101(b)(1). “Given the remedial purpose underlying the ADA, courts should resolve doubts about such questions in favor of disabled individuals.” Dudley v. Hannaford Bros. Co., 333 F.3d 299, 307 (1st Cir. 2003).
The ADA sets strict rules to maintain the confidentiality of the medical information of job applicants, persons who have been offered jobs, and employees. 42 U.S.C. § 12112(d). The statute also restricts what employers may ask employees and prospective employees about their health, when, and for what purpose that information may be used. Id. With respect to an employee, an employer may not, without limitation, “require a medical examination and shall not make inquiries of an employee as to whether such employee is an individual with a disability or as to the nature or severity of the disability, unless such examination or inquiry is shown to be job-related and consistent with business necessity.” 42 U.S.C. § 12112(d)(4)(A). An employer may make inquiries into an employee’s ability to perform job- related functions. 29 C.F.R. § 1630.14(c). However, an employer’s medical inquiries (and examinations) of employees are unlawful, except to the extent that they are explicitly authorized by the ADA. 29 C.F.R. § 1630.13(b). An employer who oversteps their bounds and makes an overbroad inquiry into an employee’s medical information commits a stand-alone violation of the statute. See Downs v. Massachusetts Bay Transp. Auth, 13 F. Supp. 2d 130, 138 (D. Mass. 1998).
Information garnered in response to an employer’s medical inquiries must be maintained in a separate medical record, which must be treated as confidential, and may be disclosed only to a narrow subset of people. 29 C.F.R. § 1630.14(c)(1). “Supervisors and managers may be informed regarding necessary restrictions on the work or duties of the employee and necessary accommodations . . . .” 29 C.F.R. § 1630.14(c)(1)(I). Information obtained as part of an employer’s medical inquiry may not be used for any purpose inconsistent with a legitimate medical inquiry. 29 C.F.R. § 1630.14(c)(2). A violation of the ADA’s confidentiality mandate is also a stand-alone violation of the statute as well. See Stark v. Hartt Transp. Sys., 37 F. Supp. 3d 445, 473 (D. Me. 2014). See also Doe v. Kohn Nast & Graf, P.C., 866 F. Supp. 190 (E.D. Pa. 1994) (employer conducted unlawful medical inquiry when it searched the office of an employee whom it knew was sick and discovered a letter indicating the employee had AIDS).
While there is little authority on what constitutes an unlawful disability-related inquiry under the ADA, Firster v. Athens Heart Ctr. P.C., 305 F. Supp. 3d 1368 (E.D. Pa. 2017) is instructive. In Firster, the plaintiff was employed by a hospital, where she was admitted as a patient after a medical event. Id. at 1370-1372. Plaintiff’s supervisor used the hospital’s computer network to access the plaintiff’s medical records without her permission. Id. at 1374- 1375. This was held to be an unlawful disability-related inquiry under the ADA, notwithstanding the defendant’s arguments that the supervisor’s actions fell outside the ADA’s ambit. Id. at 1375.
The ADA, its regulatory analogs, and interpretive case law should guide our New Jersey state courts when deciding whether the unauthorized disclosure of confidential medical information acts to violate New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (LAD). “[I]t is a frequent observation that we rely on the federal courts and their construction of federal laws for guidance in those circumstances in which our LAD is unclear.” Victor v. State, 203 N.J. 383 (2010); see also Raspa v. Office of Sheriff of County of Gloucester, 191 N.J. 323 (2007).
If you believe your employer or a coworker leaked or otherwise disclosed your confidential medical information, call the attorneys at Mashel Law (732) 536-6161 or fill out the contact form on this page for immediate help. At Mashel Law, LLC, located in Marlboro, New Jersey, we are dedicated to protecting the rights of employees.