Potential Trap for Unsuspecting Employers in the Proposed Genetic Anti-Discrimination Law

On April 25, 2008, the House passed H.R. 493, The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA), a bill that President Bush is expected to sign barring private employers from engaging in genetic discrimination. On first read, I have spotted at least one potential trap for unsuspecting employers if the bill is enacted as drafted.

Section 206(b) of the Act permits disclosure of "genetic information" in only very limited circumstances, which do not include responding to a subpoena or a civil discovery request. Employment litigators, particularly on the defense side, commonly subpoena personnel files, including all medical information from a plaintiff's former employers -- for example, to test a plaintiff's allegation that the defendant/current employer's alleged actions caused emotional distress. Under the bill, as written, an employer who inadvertently produces "genetic information" in response to such a subpoena would violate the Act because the statute does not require a knowing disclosure to support a claim.

The possibility of an inadvertent disclosure of "genetic information" is not hypothetical. As defined in the House bill, that term encompasses "the manifestation of a disease or disorder in family members" of an employee, which could include, for example, an FMLA certification stating that an employee needs FMLA leave because a spouse or child has sickle-cell anemia or Tay-Sachs disease.

If the bill is enacted as written, employers should strongly consider screening all medical information upon receipt to determine whether that information might fall within the broad definition of "genetic information." If so, the information should be filed separately from all other medical information with a note that the information should not be produced except in response to a court order.

For a more detailed discussion of this Act, please see Littler ASAP: Genetic Antidiscrimination Law Creates New Compliance Challenges for Employers by Philip L. Gordon and Jennifer L. Mora.

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.