Strictly Business

Friday, May 31 2013 12:00 PM

ROBIN PAGGI: Protect employees' health information

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    Californian contributing columnist Robin Paggi.

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BY ROBIN PAGGI Contributing columnist

As we get older, a favorite topic of conversation tends to be about our health or lack thereof. As an employer or supervisor, it's fine to discuss your own health issues with anyone you want, but it's not fine to discuss your employees' health issues with people who do not have a need to know. Indeed, a recent court ruling demonstrates that doing just that can result in an invasion of privacy lawsuit.

California's Civil Code section 56.20 restricts employers from disclosing medical information about their employees without written consent from the affected employee except in certain circumstances. Medical information includes:

* Physicians reports

* Lab results

* Family and medical leave request forms

* Return to work releases

* Workers' comp records

* Information on disabilities being accommodated

* Information on drug or alcohol rehabilitation, and

* Other records that relate in any way to an employee's medical history.

Employers and supervisors who do not safeguard medical records and keep medical information confidential risk being sued, as was the case in Ignat v. Yum! Brands, Inc. (the parent company of KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut).

According to court documents at www.courts.ca.gov, Melissa Ignat, who worked in the real estate title department at the company, suffered from bipolar disorder. While absent from work because of the disorder, Ignat's supervisor told co-workers about her illness. Ignat said her co-workers subsequently "avoided and shunned her, and one of them asked (her supervisor) if Ignat was likely to 'go postal' at work." Ignat was terminated a few months later and filed suit alleging one cause of action for invasion of privacy by public disclosure of private facts.

The trial court dismissed the case because the disclosure was not in writing, which it determined was necessary based upon previous court cases. However, the appellate court disagreed, saying, "No one has come up with a good reason for restricting liability to written disclosures, and it has long been acknowledged that oral disclosures can be just as harmful."

State and federal laws allow employers to disclose medical information without an employee's written consent:

* When compelled by a court of law or by a lawsuit filed by an employee

* When used for administering and maintaining employee benefits

* In relation to a worker's comp claim or request for medical leave

* To a health care provider if the employee is unable to do so, and

* When supervisors need information about necessary restrictions or accommodations for work duties.

Other than that, don't talk about your employees' health issues and ensure others don't talk about them as well.

-- Robin Paggi is the training coordinator at Worklogic HR Legal Solutions. Reach her at rpaggi@worklogiclegal. com. These are her opinions, not necessarily those of The Californian.

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