Joanne Holland was employed as a nurse at the Dallas Veterans Affairs Medical Center ("Dallas VA"). She requested FMLA leave for a variety of stress-related ailments incident to her filing an EEO complaint against her supervisor, Cathy McClellan. Holland supported her request for FMLA leave with medical documentation. Holland made the request to Associate Director of Patient Care Services Sandra Griffin. Griffin notified Dallas VA personnel, including McClellan, of Holland's request for FMLA leave. Holland had asked that Griffin not be involved with her request for FMLA leave. It was subsequently determined that Griffin, as her immediate supervisor, had to approve of Holland's request for FMLA leave. Holland subsequently submitted her FMLA leave request to McClellan. Griffen held two telephonic conferences with Holland and other members of the Dallas VA staff to discuss Holland's request, which was approved.
Holland sued, alleging that the disclosure of her medical information to McClellan and other Dallas VA personnel violated the FMLA's medical confidentially requirements of 29 CFR 825.500(g). In relevant part, the regulation states that "[r]ecords and documents relating to certifications, recertifications or medial histories of employees or employees' family members, created for purposes of FMLA, shall be maintained as confidential medical records." The federal district court disagreed.
The court initially noted that it is not entirely clear whether an aggrieved individual can file a civil lawsuit for violation of the medical confidentially provisions. Assuming, without deciding that a private right of action does exist, in awarding summary judgment in favor of the Dallas VA, the court found that Holland had failed to establish a violation. While the Dallas VA did release and discuss her medical information supporting her request for FMLA leave, the court found that such disclosure fit within the regularly exception that "[s]upervisors and managers may be informed regarding necessary restrictions on the work or duties of an employee and necessary accommodations." 29 CFR 825.500(g)(1). The court noted that the discussion regarding Holland's FMLA leave request was limited to McClellan, Griffin, Mariamma Kurian, Holland's second-line supervisor, Holland's Human Resource representative, Chris Seaton, and Richard Shaw, Holland's union representative.
Comment: The decision reminds employers that FMLA medical information is confidential and should be shared only with those individuals with a legitimate need to know. In this case, the court found that the employer had the right to share Holland's FMLA medical information with her initial and second-line supervisors and a company human resource representative in order to consider her leave request. That is, these managers and supervisors had a legitimate reason for the information. The limited exception allowing disclosure confidential FMLA medical information would not, for example, apply in the event one of these managers and supervisors were to share the information with a colleague as idle gossip.
Interestingly, the decision included disclosure of Holland's medical information with her union representative. As written, the exception to the medical confidentially provisions of the FMLA include "supervisors and managers," not union officials. Unfortunatley, the decision does not address whether the union official was part of the conversation at Holland's request, which would likely be construed as a limited waiver of the FMLA's confidentiality requirements.
Query whether an employer could disclose confidential FMLA medical information to the union over the objection of an employee without violating the FMLA? A union may have an independent contratual and legal right to be present at a management-employee interview, and to demand relevant information for purposes of a grievance and/or to "police" the collective bargaining agreement regardless of an employee's wishes. Because of the obvious Hobson's choice facing employers - of violating the FMLA, the CBA, or federal/state labor laws by releasing or not releasing requested medical information - courts will likely permit an employer to disclose FMLA medical information to the union provided such disclosure is required by the CBA and/or labor laws.
Needless to say, employers should exercise great care when disclosuring FMLA medical information to the union even where it is required. While it likely can't be required as a condition, the employer might ask the union to sign a confidentiality provision prior to releasing the information. Alternatively, the employer could provide the information with a memoranda emphasizng the highly confidential nature of the information being provided and the union's need to keep the information confidential. The employer may also want to address how the information will be stored, returned or disposed of. The union might tell the employer that is none of their business, but at least the employer is on record of addressing the issue in the event the matter results in a jury trial.
The union receiving the information would be well-advised to treat FMLA medical information as highly confidential. Simply tossing the information into an unsecured grievance file would likely be a "bad" move. While a union's mishandling of FMLA medical information secured from an employer would not give rise to an FMLA violation, it may be the basis for a costly and embarasing lawsuit on alternative grounds. The proper handling of confidential employee medical information, including FMLA certifications, is an area where the union and employer should seriously consider reaching agreement.
The decisions is Holland v. Shinseki, No. 3: 10-CV-00908 B (N.D. Tex. Jan. 18, 2012), https://ecf.txnd.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/sHWo_PUbliC_DoC?2010cv0908-55