If you’re not careful, a casual reference to an employee’s FMLA leave might give rise to an FMLA interference claim. A recent Florida case, Holtrey v. Collier County Bd. of Commissioners, reminds us that you can get into trouble—and violate an employee’s rights—despite proper record keeping if an employee with access to those records discloses sensitive medical information about another employee’s FMLA leave.

Basic FMLA Rules

Generally, eligible employees are entitled to up to 12 weeks of FMLA leave in a 12- month period and they get to return to their position at the end of the leave. There’s also no question that FMLA regulations require an employer to keep confidential an employee’s medical records and information related to an employee’s FMLA leave. In fact, you must maintain medical records separately from personnel records.

So What Happened in Florida?

Keep in mind that the facts as we know them are based almost entirely on the plaintiff’s version of events. With that caveat, Scott Holtrey applied for and received FMLA leave for a chronic and serious medical condition affecting his genito-urinary system. While he was out on leave, a manager apparently chatted with several of Holtrey’s coworkers about his medical condition. When Holtrey returned from leave, coworkers made jokes and obscene gestures about his medical condition in front of him. He complained and his employer (the Collier County Board of Commissioners) failed to remedy the situation, so he filed a lawsuit claiming the board violated the FMLA when his manager disclosed his medical condition and when his coworkers teased him about it. The board filed a motion to dismiss pointing out that Holtrey got all the leave he requested.

The court denied the board’s motion to dismiss, finding that Holtrey sufficiently pled an interference claim because he alleged that the board interfered with his FMLA rights by disclosing his confidential medical information resulting in a “work environment riddled with obscene gestures and jokes at his expense.” According to the court, the issue “is whether confidentiality is a right under the FMLA and whether Defendant interfered with that right.” The court noted that district courts conflict on whether disclosure of medical information constitutes an FMLA interference claim, but went on to note that the regulations make clear that “confidentiality of medical information is a right provided and protected under the FMLA.”

Guarding Confidential Medical Information

The court hasn’t said that Holtrey wins his FMLA interference lawsuit based entirely on the supervisor’s violation of his confidentiality. It has, however, found that Holtrey’s lawsuit to test that theory can continue. How could this be prevented? Maybe Holtrey’s manager didn’t need to know what was wrong with Holtrey—just that he was approved for leave. The Holtrey case is a good reminder to make sure that employees (especially managers) are thoroughly (and frequently) trained about their FMLA obligations.

Rule of thumb: Don’t chat about an employee’s medical condition — ever.