Workplace Class Action Blog

Seventh Circuit Rejects The EEOC’s Claim And Limits Scope Of ADA Confidentiality Requirements

Posted in EEOC Litigation

250px-US-CourtOfAppeals-7thCircuit-Seal.pngBy Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Jennifer A. Riley

On November 20, 2012, the Seventh Circuit issued its opinion in EEOC v. Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, No. 11-2848 (7th Cir. 2012), affirming a district court order granting summary judgment against the EEOC.

In a welcome relief for employers, the Seventh Circuit rejected the EEOC’s attempt to extend the scope of the confidentiality requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”). The Seventh Circuit held that the ADA’s confidentiality provisions do not extend to medical information volunteered by employees or received in response to job-related inquiries.    

Factual Background

Charging Party Gary Messier worked for Thrivent as a temporary programmer. After nearly four months without incident, Messier failed to report to work, and his supervisor sent Messier an email stating that “we need to know what is going on.” Id. at 3. Hours later, Messier replied stating that he had a severe migraine and that he had been suffering from a migraine condition since a major car accident in 1984. Id. at 3-4. 

A month later, Messier quit his job at Thrivent and began looking for other employment. Id. at 5. After three prospective employers lost interest in him after conducting reference checks, Messier hired an online reference check agency. Id. The agency telephoned Thrivent pretending to be a prospective employer, and Thrivent disclosed that Messier “has medical conditions where he gets migraines” and “would not call us [to let us know].” Id. 

Messier subsequently filed a charge with the EEOC alleging disability discrimination under the ADA. The EEOC thereafter filed suit claiming that Thrivent violated the confidentiality provisions contained in 42 U.S.C. § 12112(d) by revealing “confidential medical information” about Messier. Id. at 6. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Thrivent, and the Seventh Circuit affirmed.

The Seventh Circuit’s Opinion

The Seventh Circuit recognized that, before it could decide whether Thrivent violated the confidentiality provisions of the ADA, it had to decide whether the statute applied to Messier’s situation. Id. at 8. The relevant portion of the statute – entitled “Medical examinations and inquiries” – requires an employer to treat “information obtained regarding the medical condition or history of the applicant” as a “confidential medical record.” Id. at 6 (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 12112(d)). 

The Seventh Circuit held that 42 U.S.C § 12112(d) has a “plain meaning.” Id. at 11. The use of the conjunction “and” in the title “suggests that the examinations and inquiries referred to in the title of section (d) are within the same class or type:  they are both medical.” Id. Further, the subject matter discussed in the body of section (d) confirms that the word “inquiries” does not refer to all generalized inquiries, but instead refers only to medical inquiries. Id. at 12. The Seventh Circuit found no evidence of a “medical inquiry” in this case. Id. at 16. It noted that, at minimum, an employer already must know that something is wrong with an employee before initiating the interaction in order for the interaction to constitute an inquiry for purposes of the statute. Thrivent did not have any such knowledge. Indeed, the Seventh Circuit reasoned that “Messier’s absence was just as likely due to a non-medical condition was it was due to a medical condition.” Id. at 16. 

Implications

The Seventh Circuit’s holding provides a welcome clarification for employers. It rejected the EEOC’s argument that the term “inquiries” as used in 42 U.S.C. § 12112(d)(4)(B) refers to all job-related questions and, thereby, rejected the EEOC’s efforts to expand the confidentiality protections of the ADA to medical information received in response to non-medical inquiries. As a result, the Seventh Circuit limited employers’ obligations under the statute. Under Thrivent, employers who receive unsolicited medical information need not treat such information as a confidential medical record under the ADA, and they do not violate the requirements of the ADA by revealing the information to others.  

Readers can also find this post on our EEOC Countdown blog here.