Few of us are fortunate enough to have perfect health. Many of us will suffer from an illness or injury so severe that we are required to take a leave of absence from work. Luckily, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) provides protected leave to eligible employees who suffer from a qualified medical condition.
To take FMLA leave, an employee will need to explain to his or her employer the medical issue that requires the leave of absence from work. Sometimes, the employee may be embarrassed by the medical reason for taking leave.
So what happens if the employer grants the employee FMLA leave but later reveals the medical issue to fellow employees, resulting in workplace ridicule and harassment? Short answer: the employee may have a case for a FMLA violation. This is exactly what happened in a recent case.
Holtrey v. Collier County Board of County Commissioners
Scott Holtrey had been working for the Collier County Board of County Commissioners for about nine years when he developed a serious medical condition involving his genitourinary system. Holtrey needed to take time off from work to treat this condition, so he requested FMLA leave.
The Board granted the leave. But during a subsequent staff meeting, the Board disclosed Holtrey’s medical condition to his co-workers, without his knowledge or consent and without any reason for doing so. After Holtrey returned to work, his co-workers began making fun of him. The bullying included obscene gestures and inappropriate jokes.
Holtrey asked the Board to help stop the harassing behavior, but it was unable to do so. As a result, Holtrey sued the Board, claiming interference and retaliation under the FMLA. The Board responded by filing a motion to dismiss Holtrey’s lawsuit.
Rights Under the FMLA
The FMLA requires covered employers to provide unpaid leave to their eligible employees and hold their jobs for them until they return from leave. To be eligible for FMLA leave, the employee must have a qualified medical or family reason to take time away from work.
In Holtrey’s case, he had a valid medical reason, and the Board granted his medical leave as requested. So how could Holtrey sue? Even though he received his medical leave, the Board’s divulging of private medical information violated FMLA’s confidentiality provisions.
Since Holtrey suffered ridicule from his co-workers that the Board was unable to stop, Holtrey alleged that this amounted to FMLA interference and retaliation, the two main causes of action an employee may have under the FMLA.
Interference Claim Under the FMLA
The legal claim of FMLA interference refers to an employer that interferes with, restricts, or prevents employees from exercising their legal rights under the FMLA.
In its defense, the Board argued that it could not be liable for interference since it allowed Holtrey to take all the FMLA leave he needed. However, the FMLA also states that medical records of employees and their family members shall remain confidential and separate from the employee’s personnel files.
The court concluded that the right to keep medical information private is protected under the FMLA and that the Board violated that right. Although the court recognized legal uncertainty as to whether this privacy violation allows an employee to sue an employer, the court denied the Board’s motion to dismiss Holtrey’s interference claim.
Retaliation Claim Under the FMLA
Retaliation refers to a materially adverse action that an employer takes against an employee because of the employee’s exercise of his or her FMLA rights. A materially adverse action refers to anything that an employer does that may persuade a reasonable employee not to exercise those rights. Classic materially adverse actions include firing, demotion, and transfer to a less desirable position.
The primary contention in Holtrey’s case was whether the Board’s disclosure of his medical information was a materially adverse action. The court ruled that revealing private and sensitive medical information to fellow employees could plausibly create a work environment that would persuade a reasonable employee not to request FMLA leave. As a result, the court also denied the Board’s request that the retaliation claim be dismissed.
For more information about interference and retaliation claims under the FMLA, as well as about how the FMLA works in general, check out “The Employer’s Guide to the Family and Medical Leave Act” from the U.S. Department of Labor.
Summing It Up
- The FMLA requires covered employers to provide their employees with unpaid, job-protected leave so that employees can take care of their own medical issues or take care of a close family member.
- An employer may not discourage an employee from exercising his or her rights under the FMLA through interference or retaliation.
- FMLA interference refers to an employer who prevents or restricts an employee from exercising FMLA rights.
- FMLA retaliation refers to an employer that takes a materially adverse employment action against an employee because the employee exercised his or her FMLA rights.
- Under the FMLA, an employer may not reveal confidential medical information about the employee taking the leave. However, the courts are split on whether an employee can sue an employer for this breach of confidentiality.
If you believe your employer has disclosed your confidential medical information to your co-workers, interfered with your right to seek FMLA leave, or retaliated against you for taking FMLA leave, please contact our office. We can talk about your situation, discuss how the law may apply to you, and advise you about your options.