CASE: Paul Cronan and New England Telephone Company (A)
I.LEGAL CASE ANALYSIS
Paul Cronan was hired by New England Telephone (NET) in 1973 as a file clerk. In 1983 he was promoted to service technician. He worked in Needham, Massachusetts for 18 months before transferring to South Boston, Massachusetts. In 1985, Cronan suffered from medical symptoms due to AIDS-related complex (ARC), and missed work sporadically for 6 months. In June, 1985 Cronan requested a third leave of absence from work for a doctor’s appointment. Cronan’s supervisor, Charles O’Brian, demanded to know the nature of the illness, and assured him that the information would be kept confidential. Cronan informed O’Brian that the illness was AIDS-related, whereupon he received the work excuse to see his doctor. O’Brien informed his supervisor, Paul Cloran, of Cronan’s AIDS status, who in turn informed his own supervisor. The following day, in accordance with company policy, O’Brien mandated that Cronan see the company physician. After a 10 minute physical examination Cronan was sent home.
Two days later, a coworker informed Cronan that news of his AIDS-related illness had spread around his co-workers, and that threats of physical violence were made against Cronan should he return. Fearing for his safety and health, Cronan requested medical leave, which was granted. He began receiving company-paid medical benefits, first departmental sickness benefits, then illness benefits. Illness benefits were extended several times to 12 months total.
In August 1985, Cronan wished to return to work. His new supervisor, Richard Griffin, stated that in accordance with company policy a medical certificate from his physician certifying his ability to return to work was required. Cronan obtained the certificate but also requested a transfer to another location. He did not receive a response to his request and did not return to the South Boston facility, fearing that he would be physically harmed.
In September 1985, Cronan was hospitalized with AIDS. During this hospitalization he received a letter of condolence from Griffin offering a return to his previous position with no mention of a transfer or new assignment. In December 1985, Cronan filed a lawsuit assisted by the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts for $1.45 million in state court, alleging invasion of privacy and discrimination of a handicap.
In August of 1985, NET began to modify policies that reflected AIDS in the workplace. These policies stated that AIDS was to be treated as any other illness and an employee diagnosed with AIDS may return to work if he is not disabled. The policies were unanimously approved by management and added to the corporate policy handbooks. No formal dissemination of these policies to the rank and file workers was made.
In June 1986, Cronan was informed that his illness benefits had ceased and he was now only entitled to long term disability payments, having effectively been terminated from NET. Due to financial hardships, Cronan and NET came to a settlement agreement in October 1986. Cronan was reinstated in his job and transferred to the Needham, Massachusetts facility. The financial details remained sealed.
Immediately upon his return to work at Needham, Cronan was subjected to harassment and hostility from the coworkers. The workers filed a union grievance stating that the reinstatement of Cronan violated their safety and health agreement in their labor contract. The next day the coworkers refused to be in contact with Cronan and 29 workers staged a walk-out.
B.Critical Legal Issues
1.Privacy – Cronan’s privacy may have been violated when the news of his medical condition was revealed to the line management and subsequently to the coworkers.
2.Discrimination – Cronan’s diagnosis of AIDS could conceivably fall under the category of a disability, therefore the treatment he received from NET and the coworkers could be construed as frankly discriminatory.
3.Sexual Harassment – Cronan’s treatment at the hands of his coworkers might broadly be construed as sexual harassment due to his homosexuality.
4.Disability – AIDS might be considered a disability so that employer discrimination based on such a disability may be a violation of the law.
Massachusetts General Law (G.L. c. 214, 1B) Right of Privacy, states “A person shall have a right against unreasonable, substantial or serious interference with his privacy.”
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits job discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, except when there are bona fide occupational qualifications reasonably necessary to normal business operations. Under the disparate treatment doctrine, the employee must provide evidence that the employer intentionally discriminated against the employee. Under the disparate impact doctrine, the employee must prove that the employer’s policies had a discriminatory effect on a group protected under title VII.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on sex. A hostile work environment is prohibited even if no economic loss occurs and is considered discrimination under Title VII ((477 U.S. 57 (1986) Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson.))
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination in employment based on medical disability was not ratified until 1990. No relief for discrimination in employment based on a disease such as AIDS was available in 1986.
Cronan had a right to expect privacy in his workplace under Massachusetts law – the right against unreasonable, substantial or serious interference with his privacy. He complied with the request to divulge his medical illness to his line management, expecting that the information would be kept strictly confidential. Although not in the same vein as one expects in the confessional from a priest or professionally as with a physician or an attorney, Cronan had the reasonable expectation that his medical information would be kept private. Even if company policy dictates divulging such information to upper line management, the expectation of respecting Cronan’s privacy remains. The fact that the information was divulged or discovered by Cronan’s coworkers indicates a failure to act in a reasonable manner to keep Cronan’s information confidential by the company, violating Massachusetts law with the resulting injury to Cronan.
NET was subject to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and therefore could not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. However, even if he was an admitted homosexual, Cronan could not claim to be a member of a protected class, as the alleged discrimination was being based on his sexual orientation, not his sex. Title VII does not grant protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation. In addition, Massachusetts in 1986 had no laws protecting discrimination based on sexual orientation. Therefore, if homosexuality per se was the only category for which he sought relief, Cronan would have no basis for prevailing. However, Title VII clearly prohibits sexual harassment and the Supreme Court decision in 477 U.S. 57 (1986) Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson clearly established that the presence of a hostile work environment constitutes sexual harassment and is therefore covered under Title VII. Cronan’s coworkers wrote humiliating graffiti, left pamphlets with personal disparagements in his workplace as well as threatened him with physical harm. These actions clearly demonstrate that a hostile work environment existed solely due to the fact Cronan was gay and had AIDS. These actions constitute sexual harassment under Title VII and are actionable.
Cronan clearly had his privacy violated by the dissemination of the news of his illness to his coworkers. Had his medical condition remained private, his AIDS status need not have been published and he possibly could have returned to work without incident. NET is liable for the transgression under Massachusetts General Law (G.L. c. 214, 1B) and should compensate Cronan for his injuries.
Directly due to the release of his AIDS status, Cronan was subjected to humiliating and intimidating behavior from his coworkers, creating a hostile work environment. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, subsequently clarified by the Supreme Court decision in 477 U.S. 57 (1986) Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, a hostile work environment constitutes sexual harassment. As the coworkers’ behavior was delivered solely due to the fact that Cronan was gay and had AIDS, the behavior constitutes sexual harassment. NET had a duty to prevent such behavior and failed to do so, leaving them liable for Cronan’s injuries.
Cronan cannot claim special status under Title VII due to his homosexuality as a class, so that he can have no action for discrimination solely based on sexual orientation. Similarly, in 1986 there was no redress for discrimination due to medical disability, as the ADA was not passed until 1990. Therefore, Cronan should get no relief for discrimination based on homosexuality or medical disability.
II.ETHICAL CASE ANALYSIS
1.Privacy – Did NET have an ethical duty to keep Cronan’s medical history confidential once it was made aware of his AIDS status?
2.Prejudice and Ignorance – Did NET behave ethically by not educating the workforce in the facts of AIDS, so that Cronan could be assured of a safe work environment?
3.Hostile Work Environment – Did NET behave ethically by not ensuring that Cronan had a safe work environment or at least ensuring a transfer to another facility?
Cronan’s supervisor assured him that the information of his medical condition would be kept confidential. Even if he was obligated to inform his line management, all efforts to keep the information confidential should have been made.
A corporate policy regarding AIDS in the workplace was developed and approved by high level management as early as September 1985, but not disseminated to the workers effectively.
When Cronan voiced fears for his safety and well-being a transfer could have been arranged for him to work at another facility. Instead, NET management sent written documentation during his hospitalization that superficially offered continued employment but made no mention of a transfer.
NET had valid internal policies in place that functioned to document excessive work absences due to medical complaints, and compelling a worker to reveal his medical illness to line management was a valid business concern that benefited the whole by preventing malingering or preventing exposing the workers to serious contagions. Yet the release of his medical information, whether intentional or not, was a violation of ethics, as one would reasonably assume that such information would be kept confidential.
NET developed a policy regarding AIDS in the workplace that was prepared as early as September 1985. It was disseminated by word of mouth to high level managers, but not to the rank and file employees. Knowledge may have gone a long way to mitigate the actions of the coworkers. It is a fair assumption that had the information been available to the workers sooner, many of the subsequent problems may have been lessened or obviated. Ethically the information should have been widely disseminated.
Regarding the privacy issues, there are few arguments against the alternative of maintaining Cronan’s medical history private. Under utilitarianism analysis, the costs of maintaining confidence are few, whereas the liabilities of not keeping the information private are many, even discounting the legal liabilities involved. There is no benefit to the majority in knowing Cronan’s particular medical history – the only argument for this course of action would be if a serious communicable disease existed that immediately placed the health of all the workers at risk were the information kept private. Indeed, utilitarianism theory supports the utility of keeping medical information private as the rest of the workers would retain their job satisfaction, therefore the ethical action is to keep the medical information private. . Deontological theory focuses on the duties, obligations and principles of the entity involved. Clearly the duty here is to keep the medical information private, which would be the ethical course of action.
Regarding Cronan’s continued employment and job situation, one might argue that alternatives exist. Under utilitarianism, the greatest utility is that which benefits the majority over the few. If the employment satisfaction of the workers as a whole is considered to be the greatest utility, then NET would behave ethically by not allowing Cronan to return to work but instead terminating him and resigning him to the benefits he is entitled to under the employment agreement, which are long-term disability benefits only. These actions would ensure the maximum job satisfaction of the majority of the workers and would constitute ethical behavior on the part of NET.
Under deontological theory however, the principles and duties involved require that ethical behavior protects Cronan despite the objections of the majority or the business consequences thereof. The duty to Cronan is to accommodate his illness, however controversial, in a sensitive and humane manner, so that minimal injury is sustained.
E.Judgment and Rationale
AIDS in 1985 was a relatively obscure disease of which the medical facts were relatively unknown to those outside the medical establishment. The overall sentiment was that it was a lethal and highly contagious disease found only in male homosexuals and drug addicts. It almost becomes difficult to find fault with a company forced to deal with this controversial issue as the test case. Yet legal issues aside, the ethical behavior in this situation remains clear.
Privacy of medical information is almost sacrosanct, so much so that medical care providers cannot be compelled to provide medical information of a patient even to law enforcement officials without the consent of the individual. Although there may be no similar legal corollary binding the officers of a business, clearly the ethical decision in any situation similar to Paul Cronan’s is to keep the information private. There is no obviating “need to know” principle in place that compels the informing of the workers, such as the discovery of a highly communicable illness that puts the workers at risk or requires medical evaluation. Even if the dissemination of this private information were inadvertent, processes should be in place to prevent such occurrences.
The potential for the development of bigotry or a hostile work environment requires an ethical response. The foreknowledge of Cronan’s anticipated return to work at NET in any capacity mandates that he be allowed to work in a harmonious and safe environment. As ignorance was the main impetus for the majority of the behaviors noted by Cronan, education would be the solution. The ethical course of action would be initially providing widespread company dissemination of the policy regarding AIDS in the workplace, followed by intense education of the workers about AIDS. An overall policy of intolerance of any harassment should be published and enforced.
Finally, the ethical response to Cronan individually in the situation as listed in the narrative would be to find him a position constrained only by the limits of his medical condition where he would find job satisfaction in a workplace environment free of hostility and sexual harassment, with relocation provided if necessary.