Paul Cronan was employed by New England Telephone Company (NET) in 1973 as a file clerk and was promoted to service technician in 1983. In 1985, for a period of six months, Cronan began sporadically missing work due to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS)-related symptoms. Cronan’s supervisor requested an explanation for the absences and assured Cronan that it would be kept confidential.
Cronan explained his AIDS status, was excused for the day, and subsequently ordered to see the company doctor. Two days later, Cronan was informed by a co-worker that she had heard he had AIDS and that other co-workers were threatening him with bodily harm should he return. Fearing for his safety and health, Cronan requested he be placed on medical leave, which was granted with benefits. In late August 1985, Cronan felt well enough to return to work.
He obtained the required medical fitness certification but was hesitant to return to the South Boston office where he had worked. He was informed that disparaging graffiti had been left on the bathroom stalls he used and that managers within the company had promised to have his work areas disinfected. Cronan was fearful for his safety and requested a transfer, but a response to his request was not forthcoming. Cronan fell ill again in early September and received a letter offering his original position with no mention of the transfer request.
In December 1985, Cronan, assisted by the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, filed a $1.45 million civil lawsuit in state court against NET, charging violations of state privacy law for disclosure of Cronan’s illness. The suit also alleged discrimination, claiming that AIDS was a handicap and thus was covered by statutes prohibiting discrimination. Cronan was hospitalized several more times but by the spring of 1986, he had improved. In June, he was notified that his illness benefits had elapsed, and he was being placed on long-term disability, which meant he was no longer a NET employee.
In October 1986, Cronan and NET reached an agreement allowing Cronan to return to work the following week. After his return, Cronan faced “a hostile environment,” which included written threats to gays and lesbians, union grievances filed stating that Cronan was a violation of the health and safety agreement, and workers’ refusal to enter the same building with Cronan. The union alleged that NET was not providing sufficient education to employees concerning the risks associated with AIDS. NET maintained that it had undertaken a “good faith effort” to educate employees concerning AIDS and the myths associated with it.
Legal Analysis Issues:
Cronan was terminated when he received notice that his benefits had lapsed. Was this a legal termination under relevant employment law? Were privacy or employment rights violated when Cronan’s condition was made known to the workforce at large? In light of Cronan’s illness, were violations committed under the Americans with Disabilities Act? Could Cronan’s illness be perceived as sexual in nature? Was Cronan subjected to sexual harassment under the meaning of the applicable statutes?
Cronan’s long history of illness and related attendance record set into motion the process leading to his termination. The company followed established procedures when notifying Cronan of his eventual termination and placement in long-term disability status.
The Civil Rights Act (CRA) of 1964 applies to this case because NET employs more than fifteen employees. The act protects workers and prospective workers from discrimination in hiring, terminating, compensating, or setting the terms and conditions of employment based on sex, color, religion, race, or national origin. Cronan was not an obvious member of a protected class. However, the actions of management and the nature of his illness created a situation in which Cronan was subject to harassment of a sexual nature, which is covered by the Act. When management leaked Cronan’s condition to the general workforce, he was faced with threatening and demeaning graffiti, threats to his safety, and barriers to his continued employment. Many of the threats revolved around the assumption Cronan was gay and had contracted the disease through homosexual activity.
The continued threats against his person created a hostile work environment, which is firmly established as a violation under Title VII of the CRA by the Supreme Court in the 1986 case Meritor v. Vinson. The fact that many of Cronan’s antagonists were also men has no bearing on whether or not the actions constituted sexual harassment. In Oncale v. Sundowner, a case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court subsequent to the Cronan case, the court ruled that Title VII applied not only to cases of classic sexual discrimination but also to those where the employer was discriminating against members of their same sex. It could be argued that a disparate impact was established when management divulged the personal information to employees. However, since the acts of management did not have a discriminatory effect upon a class of employees protected by the Act, this would not apply.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed by Congress in 1990 would have provided Cronan additional relief had it been enacted prior to 1986. The ADA protects workers from discrimination based on disabilities. The act defines a disability as “any physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of an individual’s major life activities.” A “physical or mental impairment” includes physical disorders or conditions, disease, disfigurement, amputation affecting a vital body system, psychological disorders, mental retardation, mental illness, and learning disabilities. One of the elements that constitute a “major life activity” is work. The ADA requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations for disabled workers.” While there is not a hard and fast definition for “reasonable accommodations,” it seems probable that NET violated this when it refused to respond to Cronan’s request to be transferred because of the actions of co-workers.
Ethical Analysis Issues: It was reasonable for NET management to expect an explanation for Cronan’s numerous absences related to illness. Once Cronan revealed his situation, did NET management behave unethically by revealing his illness to other employees? Did NET behave ethically in its subsequent actions?
Application: Applying ethical theory to the Cronan case reveals many interesting vantage points from which to make ethical judgments. Differing theories offer varying arguments both for and against NET’s behavior. Under Utilitarianism, the ethical decision is that which produces the most utility when compared to any other alternative.
The initial task then is to define utility as it pertains to a particular set of circumstances. If utility is defined in the Cronan case as employee harmony and happiness, then it might be argued that NET’s behavior was, in fact, ethical. Given the amount of fear and tension Cronan’s illness inflicted upon the employee population, his returning to the workplace put enormous stress on his co-workers, thereby lowering the amount of harmony and happiness experienced by the majority of workers. Under these conditions, the most ethical choice would be to terminate Cronan’s employment with disability benefits, maintaining harmony and happiness among the greater amount of employees while lessening the amount of impact upon Cronan. The increased utility for the many would outweigh the discord of the one. The same answer would be produced if utility were defined as the amount of goods and services produced at the lowest price since employee happiness has a direct correlation to productivity.
The productivity of the company was surely suffering during this period of fear and frustration, thus driving up costs. In this situation, the greatest amount of utility would again be achieved by returning the most employees to high productivity using the most expeditious means. Conversely, NET’s release of Cronan’s medical information to the general employees would yield a single answer using either utility criteria. If utility is defined as happiness and harmony, then NET could have preserved the maximum utility by keeping Cronan’s situation confidential and continuing to employ Cronan when he was physically able to work. This again correlates to increased production and would yield the same result if utility were defined using productivity as a standard. One of the major criticisms of Utility theory is that it fails when it is applied to situations involving social justice.
In order to arrive at a different answer under Utilitarian thought, utility would need to be defined using all persons possibly affected by discriminatory behavior like that perpetrated by NET. In Kantian theory, “an action is morally right for a person in a certain situation if, and only if, the person’s reason for carrying out the actions is a reason that he or she would be willing to have every person act on in a similar way.” Simplified, it is due unto others as you would have them do unto you. Examining the privacy issue, one could assume that any member of NET’s management would not want his or her personal information released to the general employee population.
Kantian philosophy would indicate that it is therefore unethical for management to release private information. What if management felt the information concerned the health of another employee? It could still be maintained that management placed in Cronan’s situation would not wish private information divulged. When Kantian theory is applied to NET’s subsequent actions and behavior, the answers derived are not as clear. NET’s inaction to provide reasonable considerations for Cronan’s illness would seem unethical because if placed in a similar situation, a reasonable person would wish to be similarly accommodated.
However, this does not take into consideration the safety of fellow workers. Little was known about AIDS and how it was spread during the Cronan case. Medical experts were not able to say with certainty that HIV could not spread through some forms of casual contact. This being the case, it is reasonable to assume many individuals would feel it was correct to isolate infected individuals even if they themselves were to become the infected party. This leads to a criticism of Kantian theory. The lack of clear resolution when the rights of differing parties clash.
The theory does not provide clear guidance as to the ranking of rights. Does one’s right to freedom and dignity outweigh another’s rights to live free from fear of disease and death? Under strict Kantian interpretation, if the perpetrators of an act would wish it to be universalized, then the act is ethical. Under this guideline, an act’s ethical status depends solely upon the actor and not the action.