The situation is not uncommon: Joe is suffering from some emotional problems, and the company not only picks up the bills for his psychiatric treatment but also makes sure his superiors and coworkers understand what he is going through, so they will be a bit more patient and understanding.
But by spreading the word, has the company so invaded Joe's privacy that he can sue for damages? As two recent court decisions make clear, the answer depends on where this all took place.
In general, a person can sue for invasion of privacy when some private facts about him are unreasonably made public.
Although it is possible to argue about what is, or is not, a "private fact," the courts agree that revealing that a person is in the hands of psychiatrists is the sort of private fact that is covered by the law. The meaning of being made public, however, and when it is reasonable to do so are much more contentious issues.
On Feb. 25, the Oklahoma Supreme Court, in Eddy v. Brown, tossed out a case brought by a worker whose foreman had told a number of coworkers about his hospital confinement for psychiatric evaluation. Telling a handful of coworkers isn't making the fact public, the judges said.
But on March 6, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston gave the green light to a similar tort suit in which a few managerial employes had been told of an employe's emotional problems. The Boston judges seemed to assume that any disclosure of such information amounted to making the matter public. Their concern in the opinion in Bratt v. IBM was whether the disclosure was reasonable.
Oklahoma uses a compilation of the law of torts put together by the American Law Institute and widely relied on by judges. But Massachusetts has its own statute covering the right to privacy, and that is the law that the Boston appellate court had to apply.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, in the controlling interpretation of that statute, told courts handling invasion of privacy cases to balance the "employer's legitimate business interest in obtaining and publishing the information against the substantiality of the intrusion upon the employe's privacy resulting from the disclosure."
Using that formula, the trial court had tossed out the damage suit, reasoning that supervisors have to know of a subordinate's mental problems, and so that side of the equation would always predominate.
But the appellate judges ruled that it is a much closer call, and one that a jury should make only after a full trial.
The irony of the Massachusetts case is that the decision went against IBM at least partially because the company has been so particularly concerned with protecting employe privacy rights. Because the firm has explicit policy statements limiting dissemination of medical information about employes, those working there have a higher-than-usual expectation of privacy, the judges explained. And therefore a disclosure that at another company might be reasonable could be held to be unreasonable at IBM.
In other cases, courts ruled that:
*Miners injured when methane gas exploded can sue the federal government for their injuries. The mine had been ordered closed when an inspector found the dangerous gas levels, but, the suit said, the closing order was overruled by a higher-up in the Mine Safety & Health Administration.
In that case, the government argued, the decision was within the discretionary power of the officials, and so was immune from challenge in a tort suit. But the U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans found the regulation mandating that gassy mines be closed to be so unequivocal that it left no room for regulators to make policy decisions. (Collins v. U.S., March 3)
*Drivers hauling materials to a construction site are construction workers, regardless of what the Labor Department thinks. Under the Davis-Bacon Act, workers on projects being paid for with tax dollars must get the "prevailing wage" in each town for such jobs. But contractors insist that in fact the pay levels set by the government tend to be higher than what they otherwise would pay, so it is to their advantage to reduce the number of workers covered by the statute.
The Wage Appeals Board in Labor decreed that a contractor's truckers were excluded from Davis-Bacon coverage, but the U.S. District Court in Washington threw out the determination. Truckers usually are covered, the ruling noted, and the wage board gave no good reason for making an exception. (Building & Construction Trades v. Dol, March 6)
Laws barring false advertising cannot be applied to political campaigns. Ruling on the first such case to come before it, the California Court of Appeals decided the constitutional guarantees of free speech are so important in the election process that courts must not take the normal marketplace standards of what kind of promotional statements are true and/or fair and try to apply them to campaign literature.
That doesn't mean the states cannot regulate campaign practices, merely that it has to be done in special statutes and not via laws that generally apply to huckstering goods and services. (O'Connor v. Superior Court, Feb. 24)
*A state can give a tax break to longtime residents if it wants to. The U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta refused to step into a dispute involving the way Florida apportions the homestead exemption in its real estate tax. The formula gives a bigger break to those who have been permanent residents of the state for five consecutive years or more. That, opponents charged, is unconstitutional because it creates two classes of citizens and limits the freedom of persons to travel from one state to another.
But the appellate judges decided that because of "the imperative need of a state to administer its own fiscal operations," they should decline to rule on the challenges. That stance might affect lawmakers elsewhere more than in Florida, where the formula was dropped two years ago. (Winicki v. Mallard, March 13)