Employee Medical Privacy Rights

claims for violation of medical privacy confidentialityOne of the most important statutes protecting employees’ medical privacy rights is Confidential Medical Information Act (CMIA). Section 56.20, subdivision (c) of this Act provides: “No employer shall use, disclose, or knowingly permit its employees or agents to use or disclose medical information which the employer possesses pertaining to its employees without the patient having first signed an authorization under Section 56.11 …, except as follows: … (2) That part of the information which is relevant in a lawsuit, arbitration, grievance, or other claim or challenge to which the employer and employee are parties and in which the patient has placed in issue his or her medical history, mental or physical condition, or treatment may be used or disclosed in connection with that proceeding. … The information may be used only for the purpose of administering and maintaining employee benefit plans, including health care plans and plans providing short-term and long-term disability income, workers’ compensation[,] and for determining eligibility for paid and unpaid leave from work for medical reasons.

It is important to remember that generally employers cannot force an employee to undergo a specific treatment for a non-industrial injury or medical condition. The law recognizes that employers have important and legitimate interests in maintaining an efficient and productive work force. Employers are therefore entitled to be notified  when an employee cannot perform some or all of the essential job functions assigned to that employee. And, if the employee hopes to take advantage of paid leave benefits, the employers are entitled to such information as is necessary to make a fair decision about the employee’s eligibility for such leave. But, a medical opinion by an employer-aligned physician as to the existence of “functional limitations,” and as to the “industrial versus nonindustrial” nature of the injury, is what the employer needs to know to make that eligibility determination. Employers do not have a cognizable interest in dictating a course of medical treatment for employees who suffer nonindustrial injuries. That is a matter for the employees to decide, in consultation with their own health care providers — medical professionals who have their patients’ best interests at heart. 

Thus, when the employer uses private medical information, obtained without an employee’s authorization, to fire that employee or condition that worker’s employment on undergoing a certain course of treatment, that employee’s privacy rights are violated and he or she can bring claims for violation of medical privacy rights, invasion of privacy, and for wrongful termination if applicable.  Please see Pettus v Cole (1996)  for a more detailed overview of the California privacy laws and protections available to employees.

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