Disclosure of medical confidential information can result in a Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) interference claim, even when the employer does not actually interfere with the employee’s right to take FMLA leave. So held a federal court recently in Fort Myers, Florida in the case of Holtrey v. Collier County Board of Commissioners.
The case serves as a clear reminder that FMLA regulations require employers to treat as confidential the medical records and other information submitted by employees in connection with requests for leave under the FMLA. Specifically, the regulations provide that records and documents relating to certifications, recertification, or medical histories of employees or employees’ family members, created for purposes of FMLA must be maintained as confidential medical records separate from personnel files. While there is an exception for informing supervisors and managers about necessary restrictions or accommodations, that exception is limited.
In the Holtrey case, the supervisor disclosed the plaintiff’s medical condition at a staff meeting, and as a result, the employee’s co-workers and subordinates made jokes and obscene gestures about his condition. While there is no express provision in the FMLA for a private right of action for disclosure of confidential information, the district court denied the employer’s motion to dismiss, holding that, even though the employee was granted FMLA leave, he nonetheless stated a claim for FMLA interference because “confidentiality of medical information is a right provided and protected under the FMLA.”
Similarly, in Mahran v. Benderson Development Company, LLC, the United States District Court for the Western District of New York refused to dismiss a claim for FMLA interference where the employee alleged his employer intentionally disclosed his medical information to his co-workers, causing him mental and emotional anguish.
Not all courts recognize an FMLA interference claim based on disclosure of confidential information. In Bender v. City of Clearwater, a Florida federal district court rejected an employee’s claims that the employer interfered with her FMLA rights by, among other things, discussing her leave with other employees. Noting that the employee had not shown her employer’s actions stopped her from taking FMLA leave or prevented her from returning to work at the end of her approved leave, the court held that the interference claim failed as a matter of law and granted summary judgment in favor of the employer without the need to proceed to trial.
Regardless of where courts will ultimately come down on this issue, employers are well-advised to restrict access to FMLA medical information to those who have a need to know, and to train supervisors and managers on the importance of not sharing it with others.