Responding to Subpoena is no Defense to Breach of Confidentiality, says EEOC
The U.S. Postal Service violated federal civil rights law by releasing an employee’s medical information to a private party in response to a state court subpoena, according to a recent Equal Employment Opportunity Commission opinion. Bennett v. U.S. Postal Service (E.E.O.C. 2011).
Bennett was a maintenance mechanic at the Postal Service’s North Houston Processing & Distribution Center who injured his back while on duty in December of 2001. He was given multiple limited-duty assignments, but his physician ultimately ordered him to stop working entirely in August 2004.
In February 2004, the Postal Service was served with a subpoena in connection with a lawsuit Bennett had brought against Union Carbide Corp. Among other things, the subpoena requested Bennett’s medical records. A Postal Service human resources associate assembled and sent the requested information.
Bennett alleged that the Postal Service improperly released his confidential medical information in violation of federal regulations. The Postal Service argued that it had no choice but to release the information, as it was compelled to do so by subpoena.
The EEOC noted that Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act requires that information regarding an employee’s medical condition be treated as confidential with the following exceptions: supervisors and managers may be informed regarding necessary restrictions on the work or duties of the employee and necessary accommodations; first aid and safety personnel may be informed, when appropriate, if the disability might require emergency treatment; and government officials investigating compliance are entitled to relevant information on request.
The EEOC found the Postal Service’s release of the information improper. “Although not all medically-related information falls within the confidentiality provision, documentation or information concerning an individual’s diagnosis is without question medical information that must be treated as confidential,” the EEOC concluded, adding that while exceptions to this rule exist, none applied to the present case.
“Unfortunately, employers can’t take the position that they are covered legally whenever they respond to a subpoena,” says MSEC attorney Curtis Graves. “We would urge our members to call us whenever they need to respond to a subpoena with information about a current or former employee.”