Following an invasion-of-privacy suit by a prospective employee, Montgomery County has agreed to stop asking job applicants such deeply personal questions as whether they have ever attempted suicide, suffered from depression, had terrifying nightmares or painful menstruation.
Routinely, the county has asked these questions on job applications filled out by everyone from clerk typists to budget analysts. Officials wanted to know, among other things, if an applicant had ever had a venereal disease or was a sleepwalker. They asked women whether they had vaginal discharge or if they had been treated for "female disorders."
Two years ago, Bonnie Cox was appalled by just these questions. She refused to fill out the form and lost a social worker position promised her.She also filed a class action suit along with the National Association of Social Workers, which has now been settled out of court.
Under the agreement, Montgomery County has one month to revise the form, eliminating more than a dozen questions and an entire section asking about the health of the applicant's family.
The county will also pay $4,500 in damages to Cox, her attorney fees and offer her the next social worker position available.
"Even though our county attorney wasn't absolutely sure there was a constitutional violation, it's reasonable to presume from the settlement that some changes are needed," said Charles Maier, spokesman for Montgomery County Executive James P. Gleason, a defendant in the case.
County occupational health co-ordinator W. E. Jones, who is responsible for the forms, took a different position. "We ask questions about suicide because it's not beneficial, well, to have employees with personality and emotional problems."
Other questions about fear of heights or fear of closed spaces were included in the form because firefighters filled them out, Jones explained. "We weren't so sophisticated then. Now we have separate forms" for firefighters and police, he said.
"Some revisions in the form were begun in 1976 in response to the law suit before this week's settlement. Jones said the section entitled "Females Only" was one of the first to go. "We could get at questions about cancer without asking about vaginal discharge."
For Cox, the outcome of her suit was "exactly what I had hoped to accomplish. I feel satisfield. I went into this hassle because I wanted the form changed, the system changed."
Cox said she was motivated in part by the oddity of finding the form in Montgomery County. "If I'd seen it anywhere else I guess I wouldn't have been so surprised. I had this liberl image of Montgomery County. I suppose that's why I was so upset."
After searching for a month to find a public interest group to help her, Cox got the Mental Health Law Project in Washington to represent her and file the suit at U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
Robert Plotkin, her attorney, described the form as an "obvious violation of the constitutional right to privacy" but he said he settled out of court because the county gave them "everything we wanted."
The form asked at the top for a of all members of an applicants family detailed listing of the cause of death; father mother, spouce and children. Additionally, if a relative suffered from tuberculosis, diabetes, cancer or heart trouble that also had to be checked off.
Then the applicant was asked to mark "yes" or "no" to 68 questions, about physical and mental health. Running ears, artifical eyes, piles, prostate problems, trick knees were all listed as ailments all listed as ailments separate response.
Among the six questions asked women only was the date of the last menstrual period.
Once those questions were answered, the applicants had to sign a statement giving the county the right to get all their personal medical records from doctors, hospitals and clinics.
After Cox filed the suit, the county changed that regulation. "We let applicants scratch that out if they wanted to," Jones explained. "I thought we were doing them a favor. Then they wouldn't have to get the records themselves."
The new application form that was part of the settlement must be in use within 30 days under the settlement. Women's questions have been folded into one unisexual inquiry about "genito-urinary" system diseases.
All mental health questions are gone, including one asking if the applicant had ever been a patient "committed or voluntary" in a mental hospital.
The county also agreed that it will not discriminate against any prospective employee on the basis of a medical condition that has no bearing on the job.
Now the medical records themselves will be kept separately, out of the personnel record with limited access because of this settlement.
This is the second time that Montgomery County personnel records have come under fire. Two years ago allegations that the county kept brown envelopes filled with derogatory personnel information on some of its employees led to an investigation. This year, State's Attorney Andrew L. Sonner prepared a report on this past misuse of personnal records.
Cox is now a psychotherapist for the District of Columbia Institute for Mental Hygiene and a research associate for the American Psychiatric Association. She said she still has some interest in a job as social worker for Montgomery County, where she resides.
"I was very much expecting to go to work for them. They had already offered me a job, I had to work as a secretary for six months before I found work after that," she said. "Now, I don't know. I'd have to see the offer."