How Confidential is FMLA Information?

By Kelly A. Hayden, JD, Chief Legal Counsel
Published January 31, 2017

With so many medical confidentiality laws, it can be difficult to understand which law applies under what circumstance. Additionally, the more people who are exposed to medical information, the more complications that can arise, as not everyone may have received the same training and instruction as human resource professionals concerning their obligations under the law. A recent case out of the United States District Court of Florida underscored this problem. (See Holtrey v. Collier County Board of County Commissioners, Case 2:16-cv-00034-SPC-CM, Jan. 12, 2017.)

FMLA information and confidentiality

In this case, the plaintiff had been working for the employer, a County Board of Commissioners, since 2006. In June of 2015, he developed a serious health condition (not in dispute) and applied for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). His request was approved. Unfortunately, during a staff meeting, a manager disclosed Plaintiff’s condition to those in attendance at the meeting. (This amounted to approximately eight coworkers in attendance.) Various coworkers subsequently approached the plaintiff to inquire about his health.  Others made jokes about his condition, including obscene gestures. Plaintiff complained about the situation, but no steps were taken to resolve it, ultimately causing Plaintiff to file a suit under the FMLA.

In ruling that the plaintiff’s claim could move forward, the Court stated: “The Court is not persuaded by Defendant’s arugment that the interference claim fails because, by Plaintif’s own admission, it granted him FMLA leave. The issue in this case is whether confidentiality is a right under the FMLA and whether Defendant interfered with that right.  Although district courts conflict on whether a disclosure of an employee’s medical information constitutes an interference claim under FMLA, the Court finds that enforcing labor regulation makes clear that confidentiality of medical information is a right provided by and protected by the FMLA.” [Citations Omitted.]

What can employers learn from this case?

  1. Make sure that your supervisors and managers understand their general obligations under federal and state laws.  As any employment lawyer will tell you, most litigation happens as a result of something a supervisor or manager has said or done, as these are the people within your organization who most frequently interact with the employees. They do not have to be experts at employment law, but they should understand the basic do’s and don’ts of the most common laws.
  2. Understand that in most cases, there is no need for a supervisor or manager to know the reason that an employee is out on family medical leave. Human resources need only advise that the employee is out on an approved leave. This will help to reduce the chance that other employees are discussing the circumstances surrounding the leave. Of course, if the employee wishes to discuss his/her own medical information with others, that is not an employer violation.
  3. This case is moving forward despite the fact that the employer granted the family medical leave. So, the court is stating that despite the fact that the employer provided the leave requested, confidentiality is a separate right that is enforceable under the FMLA.
  4. Beware that other laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Genetic Information Non Discrimination Act (GINA), the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) also have confidentiality provisions. 

Members with questions about the FMLA should contact the HR Hotline at hotline@hrsource.org or 800-448-4584.

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