Ford Faces Liability in HIV Breach

BY ARTHUR S. LEONARD | US District Judge Aleta A. Trauger of Tennessee ruled on January 14 that the Ford Motor Credit Company may have violated federal disability law when one of its supervisors revealed the HIV-positive status of one employee to others.

Trauger's January 14 decision denied a motion to dismiss the “John Doe” plaintiff's claim that Ford had violated the medical confidentiality provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Doe began working for Ford in 2000, and was diagnosed with HIV in 2002. His doctor enrolled him in a study at Vanderbilt University, which required blood to be drawn on weekdays. Concerned that his supervisor was a “gossip,” Doe instead went to a higher-level manager to ask for a scheduling accommodation. Told he must disclose the medical condition requiring the absences but assured the information would be kept confidential, Doe revealed his status to the manager.

Federal disability law found to prevent unwanted disclosure.

The manager immediately referred Doe to an occupational health nurse, an independent contractor retained by Ford to administer benefits and receive such confidential medical information to be held apart from workplace records. The nurse advised Doe that he was under no obligation to reveal his medical conditions to anyone at Ford.

Several weeks later, the manager, complaining about getting “a hard time” from Doe's supervisor for not revealing the nature of his absences, said she should be given an explanation. Despite Doe's insistence that the supervisor not be told, the manager called the supervisor into his office, told her the information she was about to hear was confidential – a point she claimed to understand – and told her Doe is HIV-positive.

Doe's fears proved grounded. His supervisor told two of his fellow workers about his HIV status, and one spread that information further.

“Mr. Doe suffered shame, embarrassment, and depression as a result of this disclosure,” according to Judge Trauger's opinion. “He took a leave of absence shortly after finding out about it, during which he sought medical treatment.” When Doe returned to work, Ford laid him off, though he was later rehired.

In response to Doe's complaints about his supervisor's action, Ford's human resources department initially refused to take action, but after further protest, the company investigated and fired her.

Doe also filed a charge with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which decided his case had merit and filed the lawsuit on his behalf. Doe joined the suit as an individual plaintiff, in order to add state law claims and seek damages. The two parties agreed to have those state law claims dismissed, at which point Ford moved for summary judgment on the federal claim.

Trauger denied that claim.

The main point of contention is whether Doe's HIV status is medical information protected under the ADA's confidentiality provisions. The ADA allows employers to require medical examinations and ask medical questions that are job-related. Any information gained must be treated as confidential, with disclosures limited to those necessary for managers to deal with work restrictions and accommodations related to an employee's medical condition.

But Ford argued that Doe had not been required to disclose his HIV status, but rather volunteered it in order to get a scheduling accommodation. Trauger rejected this argument, finding that Doe was entitled to medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, and that by insisting he reveal the nature of his medical condition, the manager did in fact require disclosure. The judge noted as well that Ford's policy requires that employees disclose the nature of a medical condition in order to qualify for medical leave. Consequently, Ford could not credibly argue this was a totally voluntary disclosure.

Ford also tried to make the rather nonsensical argument that the manager's inquiry about Doe's medical condition was not “job-related,” since it did not relate to his ability to perform his job functions, and therefore was not covered by the ADA. Doe's request for time off for his blood screening and the manager's inquiry about the nature of his medical condition were both clearly job-related, Trauger found. And if the manager's inquiry were not job-related, it would have been barred by the ADA in any event.

Ford also argued that Doe could not maintain his ADA suit because he suffered no tangible injury, but Trauger found that Doe's allegations of “shame, embarrassment, and depression,” if proven, would constitute “tangible injuries,” noting that Ford had not identified, nor could the court find, any case about ADA confidentiality provisions in which emotional or other non-economic damages were barred under the “tangible injury” rule.

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which would hear any appeal in this case, had “upheld compensatory damages for emotional harm under different subsections of the ADA,” the judge noted.

Since Ford did not deny that Doe had suffered shame, embarrassment, and depression and that he had to take a medical leave of absence to deal with these problems, Trauger found that Doe's allegation “more than satisfies the plaintiff's burden” regarding tangible injury to survive Ford's summary judgment motion.

Trauger's refusal to grant summary judgment to Ford will probably lead to a settlement of the case, since it is unlikely the company will want a jury to decide how much Doe should get for its failure to preserve the confidentiality of an employee's medical information.