Medical Conditions Aren’t All Private, Court Rules

     (CN) – A New York City music teacher whose school accused her of “theft of services” for taking repeated sick days cannot sue after the city school district’s board of education made her medical condition, fibromyalgia, public knowledge, the 2nd Circuit ruled. Privacy laws do not protect the chronic pain disorder as they protect conditions that carry social stigma like HIV, the court found.




     Dorrit Matson’s supervisors at the Bayard Rustin Educational Complex began investigating her medical condition when she made multiple sick day requests between 2003 and 2005, including sick leave that caused her to miss a school orchestra concert.
     In 2004, after Matson had just returned from sick leave, the Bayard Rustin principal confronted her and said he had heard a public radio broadcast of a symphony concert Matson conducted while she had been too sick to work.
     In addition to her job as a music teacher, Matson founded a symphony orchestra, based at Trinity Church in lower Manhattan, for which she served as director and conductor.
     While Matson was on medical leave in January 2005, the principal filed a complaint with the education department, alleging “theft of services,” and the school district’s special investigation commissioner, Richard Condon, began an inquiry. A month later, the school granted Matson nearly five months of unpaid leave, which Matson requested through a confidential application that she submitted with a doctor’s note.
     The doctor said Matson had fibromyalgia, which is characterized by widespread muscle pain and fatigue, brought on by physical or emotional stress.
     Matson told her doctor that strained professional relationships with the school’s brass contributed to her stress.
     Condon’s report to the city’s schools chancellor concluded that Matson abused the district’s sick-leave policy, and recommended that she be fired and ordered to repay portions of her salary. The report was posted on the board’s public website and eventually made its way to the media.
     Both the investigation and the subsequent report were covered by the New York press, and Matson filed suit in 2008, alleging that school officials violated her constitutional right to privacy by making her medical condition, fibromyalgia, public information on the Web.
     Matson had sought $2 million for damages and attorney’s fees, adding that the incident stifled her employment opportunities.
     A Manhattan federal judge dismissed the complaint, and the appellate court’s three-judge panel ruled 2-1 in favor of the board of education, the city and Condon.
     While careful not to downplay the seriousness of the condition, the court’s majority opinion, authored by Judge Roger Miner, agreed with the district court that there is a distinction between common medical conditions and serious ones that carry a social stigma, such as HIV, AIDS and transsexualism.
     Miner cited the lower court’s ruling, which stated that a drug used to treat fibromyalgia is “regularly advertised on television alongside drug advertisements for everyday medical conditions such as high cholesterol, frequent urination, osteoporosis, acid reflux and many other similar conditions.”
     “We agree with the district court that ‘it’s not possible to say that these commonly advertised conditions … carry a social equivalent to HIV/AIDS [or] transsexualism,” Miner wrote.
     In his dissent, Judge Chester Straub cautioned against giving “the government substantial reign to publicly disseminate a person’s intimate medical information without any justification emphasized the personal nature of one’s heath status.”
     “It is entirely plausible that the disclosed information is of the type that is highly personal and embarrassing, such that one would and normally should be able to choose whether to inform others that she suffers from these serious conditions,” Straub wrote.

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