Bernadine Vaughn worked as a nurse at Epworth Villa, a non-profit,
continuing care retirement community. On April 28, 2004, Vaughn filed a charge with the EEOC alleging that Epworth Villa discriminated against her because of her age and race. Specifically, she claimed that she was disciplined for making errors with a patient’s medical records, while a younger, white employee was not. In support of her claim, Vaughn provided the EEOC with several pages of unredacted medical records concerning an Epworth Villa patient. Over a year after Vaughn had filed her charge of discrimination with the EEOC (which remained pending), Epworth Villa learned about Vaughn’s disclosure of the unredacted medical records, which Vaughn admitted. Within a week, Epworth Villa terminated her employment for disclosing confidential medical records to a third party.
Vaughn subsequently claimed retaliation -- that he disclosure of the medical records to the EEOC in support of her discrimination charge constituted protected activity, and Epworth Villa terminated her because of that protected activity.
In Vaughn v. Epworth Villa (10th Cir. 8/19/08), the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that Vaughn's conduct was protect activity, but nevertheless affirmed the dismissal of her retaliation claim because her disclosure of confidential information violated the employer's policy:
Epworth Villa asserts that it terminated Vaughn because she violated the organization’s policies and procedures regarding confidentiality when without authorization, she provided the unredacted medical records to the EEOC. ...
Unless Vaughn can show that other Epworth Villa employees were not terminated for engaging in the same or similar conduct – intentionally disclosing unredacted medical records to a third party – the fact that Epworth Villa was not required to terminate Vaughn does not give rise to an inference of pretext. In the absence of any evidence that similarly situated employees were treated differently, it is perfectly plausible that Epworth Villa would terminate Vaughn – whether it was required to or not – for intentionally disclosing the unredacted medical records rather than for some retaliatory purpose.
Current employees who file discrimination claims might go snooping to uncover favorable evidence to bolster their chances of success. While such snooping might constitute protected activity, this case gives employers a powerful weapon to combat it. The catch is that companies must have a confidentiality policy and must consistently enforce that policy against employees who violate it. Otherwise, enforcement against the one employee who happened to have claimed discrimination will most likely be viewed as retaliatory.