Disclosure of Personal Information Leads to Employer and Supervisor Liability

In Delane Hurley v. California Department of Parks and Recreation, California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, D070098 (February 21, 2018) plaintiff Hurley recovered damages for intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress and for economic damages resulting from the improper disclosure of her personal information. The Court sustained the jury’s verdict which held Ms. Hurley’s employer, and separately her individual supervisor, liable for violating the California Information Practices Act. Further, it found that the disclosure created liability for emotional distress that could be recovered outside the limitations of workers’ compensation exclusivity.

Ms. Hurley worked under the supervision of defendant Seals at the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR). During the course of their tenure together, Seals would speak of personal non-work matters, was said to have flashed her breasts to the plaintiff, and made disparaging comments about Ms. Hurley’s sexual orientation. Hurley went on a medical leave of absence immediately after hearing Seals and another DPR non-supervisory employee discussing Hurley’s prior employment difficulties as recorded in a personnel “drop file” Seals maintained on Hurley. During the investigation that ensued when Hurley complained to HR, Seals requested the Hurley file and it was delivered to her home by another DPR employee.

Hurley sued the DPR and Seals for violation of the FEHA for discrimination and harassment, for violation of the California Information Practices Act (IPA) for improper disclosure of personal information, and for both intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress. After trial the jury found for defendants and disallowed the FEHA claims; it found in favor of Hurley against Seals and DPR on the remaining causes of action. The jury verdicts survived both parties’ requests that the trial court enter a verdict superseding the jury determinations, and the matter was appealed.

The IPA imposes liability on governmental agencies and individuals who disclose personal information maintained by the agency, except as “is relevant and necessary in the ordinary course of the performance of their official duties and is related to the purpose for which the information was acquired.” The act defines personal information as including the name, social security number, physical description, home address, telephone number, employment and medical history maintained by the agency in any file, regardless of the number or locations of those files. The Court found that in sharing information from Seals’ “drop file” with a subordinate who had no need to know of Hurley’s prior employment difficulties, Seals violated the act. Further, when a DPR employee delivered that file to Seals’ home for her personal use in preparation for the litigation, the DPR violated the statue, because Seals, while on leave, was not Hurley’s supervisor and did not have any use for the information that would further the performance of her duties.

In upholding the damages awarded Hurley for intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress the Court determined that the exclusivity provisions of California’s workers’ compensation statutes did not bar the action. While workers’ compensation provides the exclusive remedy available against the employer of an employee who sustains injuries arising out of and occurring in the course of her employment, an exception to that exclusive jurisdiction exists when the injury originates in conduct that is so outrageous and extreme that it “goes beyond all possible bounds of decency.” Seals’ receipt of the file after she went on administrative leave, her retention of the file and her delivery of the file to her attorney were sufficient to support the jury award.

While the IPA applies to governmental agencies, who must review their record maintenance procedures with renewed vigor in light of this decision, the Court’s opinion that these facts support an action for infliction of emotional distress is a trumpeted warning to all California employers. The disclosure of personal information to employees who do not require the information to perform their duties can be the stuff of office gossip and can occur in the course of investigation of any number of internal complaints or litigation. Care must be taken to carefully manage storage, access rights, and proper use of all personnel files to avoid tort liability.

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March 6, 2018