High-Profile Atlanta Case Shines Spotlight on Federal Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act and Genetic Privacy in the Workplace

Atlas Logistics Group Retail Services (Atlanta), LLC had a relatively serious business problem stemming from what it believed was employee misconduct. The employer also had what it thought was a viable solution. It just needed DNA samples from some of its employees to identify the misbehaving worker. Unfortunately for Atlas, its plan had one major flaw:  it was against federal law. As of June 22, that flaw cost the employer $2.25 million in damages awarded to two employees for the employer’s violation of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act.

The problem began when Atlas discovered several piles of human feces in one of its warehouses. While disturbing to any employer, the issue was especially problematic for Atlas as a company that warehouses food products sold to grocery stores. Atlas collected DNA cheek swabs from employees Jack Lowe and Dennis Reynolds. A lab compared the DNA of the men to DNA from the feces and found no matches.

Reynolds and Lowe sued. In an opinion issued May 5, the federal district court for the Northern District of Georgia granted summary judgment in favor of the employees on their claim that their employer violated GINA. Under GINA, employers are not allowed “to request, require, or purchase genetic information with respect to an employee.” The law defines genetic information to cover several items, including an employee’s genetic tests, the genetic tests of family members of an employee, and “the manifestation of a disease or disorder in family members” of an employee.

For employers or employees unclear regarding exactly what is, or is not, a “genetic test,” the statute’s text is instructive on this topic, too. A qualifying genetic test under GINA includes any “analysis of human DNA, RNA, chromosomes, proteins, or metabolites, that detects genotypes, mutations, or chromosomal changes.”

In Reynolds and Lowe’s case, the employer sent their cheek swab samples to a lab, where a doctor performed an analysis of their DNA that, among other things, detects genotypes and mutations. The employer then obtained the results of that analysis performed on Reynolds and Lowe’s DNA, which appeared to place it in violation of the law.

The employer argued that, since the test the lab completed did not show the men’s propensity for disease, the analysis should not count as a “genetic test.” This argument failed because the statute contains no “propensity for disease” qualifier on what does or does not constitute a genetic test under GINA law. Judge Amy Totenberg explained that the law is clear. Any time an employer procures the genetic information of its employees (as Atlas did with Reynolds and Lowe’s information) that was obtained as a result of a genetic test that can identify genotypes, mutations, or chromosomal changes (which the test performed on Reynolds and Lowe’s DNA could do), the employer has violated GINA.

The ruling in favor of the employees in this case, and the multi-million dollar damages award that followed, serve as clear indicators of how expansive genetic privacy is with GINA in place. For advice and representation you can rely upon regarding your genetic privacy case, consult the skilled Georgia employment law attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert. Our knowledgeable attorneys can help you protect your privacy as an employee or ensure your compliance as an employer.

To speak with one of our lawyers about your case, call 404-873-8048.

More blog posts:

Eleventh Circuit Affirms Dismissal of Georgia Employee’s Race and Age Discrimination Claims, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, March 11, 2015

Georgia Whistleblower Plaintiffs Must Receive Definitive Decision of Termination to Trigger Statute of Limitations, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Jan. 21, 2015

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