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Court Backs District in Disclosure of Teacher's Medical Condition

The New York City school district did not violate the privacy rights of a teacher when it publicly disclosed her medical condition, a federal appeals court has ruled.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City, ruled 2-1 on Tuesday that the disclosure of the teacher's fibromyalgia, a disorder that causes muscle pain and fatigue, in an investigative report made public on the Web did not violate her rights.

The case involves Dorrit Matson, who was a music teacher at a Manhattan public school in 2004 when she was scrutinized by the New York City school system's special commissioner for investigation for abuse of sick leave.

The commissioner issued a report in 2005 concluding that Matson had conducted a church symphony orchestra while on sick leave from her teaching job. Matson's doctor asserted to the commissioner's office that the teacher's conditions of fibromyalgia and/or chronic fatigue syndrome were brought on by stress at her school and it was not inconsistent that she could feel well enough to conduct the church symphony when she was removed from the source of her stress.

But the special commissioner concluded that Matson had abused the sick leave policy, and the report disclosing her condition was published on the inspector general's website. (Matson's employment in the New York City schools later ended, but the 2nd Circuit's opinion says the record is unclear about the circumstances for that.)

Matson sued the school system, claiming that it improperly disclosed her medical condition and that the disclosure made it difficult to get another job. She sought $2 million in damages.

A federal district court dismissed Matson's suit, and in a Jan. 11 decision, the 2nd Circuit court panel affirmed. The majority said that 2nd Circuit case law makes clear that the constitutional privacy interest in medical information about an individual varies with the condition.

People suffering from HIV or AIDS, or those who are transsexual, have been found to have a privacy interest in keeping their conditions from disclosure because of the discrimination and intolerance they face, the majority said.

"We discern no evidence in the record revealing societal discrimination and intolerance
against those suffering from fibromyalgia," Judge Roger J. Miner said in Matson v. Board of Education of the City School District of New York.

The court also held that the special commissioner's frequent public release of its reports suggests that, "rather than publishing Matson's report to embarrass or humiliate her, the SCI published the report on its website as part of its policy to inform the public of its efforts to investigate instances of fraud within the New York City public school system."

In dissent, Judge Chester J. Straub said Matson's conditions—he referred to both fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome—should be afforded privacy protection.

"It is entirely plausible that the disclosed information is of the type that is highly personal and potentially embarrassing, such that one would and normally should be able to choose whether to inform others that she suffers from these serious conditions," Judge Straub said.

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