Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Yes, GINA covers cheek swabs, even ones to uncover employee misconduct

I’ve always said that employment law is a dirty job, and this case more than proves my point.

Atlas Logistics Group, a Georgia food-storage company, had a big problem. One of its employees began habitually defecating in its warehouse. (In case you’re curious, the scientific name for this disorder is voluntary encopresis, one who has control over when and where bowel movements occur and chooses to have them in inappropriate places.)

To solve its mystery, Atlas required its employees to submit to a cheek swab, after which a lab compared DNA samples from the employees’ swabs to DNA from the offending fecal matter. Two employees, Jack Lowe and Dennis Reynolds, whose DNA did not match, filed suit under the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act.

Last month, a federal court granted summary judgment in favor of the employees, concluding that 1) GINA unequivocally covers the DNA tests conducted on their cheek-swab samples, and 2) the employer violated the statute by requesting and collecting the employees’ genetic information.

With liability already established, earlier this month, the parties tried the employees’ damages claims. And, the jury came back with a big number — $2,225,000 — including $225,000 and $250,000 in compensatory damages for the two plaintiffs, and $1,750,000 in punitive damages.

To me, this employer’s actions are not all that outrageous or inappropriate. It asked employees who were in the area of the found feces to submit to swabs of their cheeks. It neither asked for stool samples or for them to bend over and cough. Could the employer have taken a less intrusive measure, like installing hidden cameras? Sure. But, it did what it thought was reasonable under the circumstances to catch its predator. Unfortunately, however, a DNA test is still a DNA test, which runs afoul of GINA.

While I’m not offended by these tests, the jury clearly was. Over $200,000 per employee in compensatory damages? For a q-tip in the mouth? And $1.75 million in punitive damages? Why was this jury so outraged? Because their sense of privacy was offended. While social media seems to be eroding the innate nature of what “privacy” means, this verdict tells us that medical and genetic information are different.

So, employers, tread lightly when dealing with your employees’ genetic information. One case does not make a trend, but $2,225,000 (albeit one that should be reduced to $600,000 per the civil-rights law’s damage caps) in enough to make any employer stand up and take notice that genetic information discrimination is here to stay.