On June 23, 2014, in Shoun v. Best Formed Plastics, a federal judge declined to dismiss a lawsuit alleging that the plaintiff’s former employer, Best Formed Plastics, violated the Americans With Disabilities Act after it wrongfully disclosed his confidential medical information via a Facebook post.
While employed at Best, the plaintiff, George Shoun, spent several months away from work recovering from a shoulder injury he sustained on-the-job. An employee in Best’s human resources department handled the plaintiff’s workers’ compensation claim. Five days after Shoun filed an ADA lawsuit against Best, the human resources employee took to her personal Facebook page and posted:
“Isn’t [it] amazing how Jimmy experienced a 5 way heart bypass just one month ago and is back to work, especially when you consider George Shoun’s shoulder injury kept him away from work for 11 months and now he is trying to sue us.”
Shoun then filed an amended complaint, claiming that the post was a deliberate disclosure of his medical condition in violation of the ADA. Shoun alleged that the post contained information the employee learned in her capacity as a claims processor for Best, where she was responsible for monitoring and reporting Shoun’s medical treatment over a seven-month period.
Section 102 of the ADA provides that any information related to an employee’s medical condition obtained through an employment-related medical examination or inquiry must be treated by the employer as a confidential medical record. The confidentiality provisions are not invoked, however, where the employee volunteers their medical information to their employer or a co-worker outside of the context an employment-related medical inquiry.
Best argued that the lawsuit should be dismissed because Shoun had voluntarily disclosed his medical information to the public when he filed his ADA lawsuit, which is a public record. The court ruled that this argument was inappropriate for a motion to dismiss. It reasoned that whether the human resources employee gained knowledge of Shoun’s medical condition solely within the context of his workers’ compensation medical examination (which would be confidential) or through Shoun’s voluntarily disclosure in the lawsuit (which would not be confidential) was a fact question for the jury. Therefore, Shoun may continue to pursue his claims.
This case serves as a good reminder of the importance of regular training on this issue. Here, one individual’s comments on her “personal” social media page have entangled a company in a federal lawsuit. Companies can better insulate themselves from such claims if employees understand that they have a duty to protect employee personnel information (particularly medical information) learned through the course of their duties, the laws that impose that duty, and the extension of that duty beyond the office walls and into cyberspace.