Texas courts interpreting Chapter 21 of the Texas Labor Code generally attempt to interpret it consistently with federal anti-discrimination laws and frequently look to federal court decisions for guidance. However, differences do exist between Texas and federal anti-discrimination laws. One recent case explored the differences between Chapter 21 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) related to claims for release of confidential health information. El Paso County, Texas v. Vasquez, No. 05-15-00086-CV (May 5, 2016).
In El Paso County, Texas v. Vasquez, the El Paso appellate court evaluated a trial court’s denial of the county’s motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s claims of disability discrimination under Chapter 21. During her employment with the county, the employee had missed a good deal of time from work because she had suffered a heart attack and underwent surgery related to her cardiac condition. During her convalescence, she developed tuberculosis. While on leave, she regularly reported to her employer regarding the status of her treatments.
Upon her return to work, she alleged that coworkers did not want to work with her because she had developed tuberculosis. She also claimed they harassed her because of the tuberculosis. She claimed that the only way her coworkers could have learned she had tuberculosis was by the county’s release of her personal, confidential health information.
After filing a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Texas Workforce Commission Civil Rights Division (TWC-CRD) alleging disability discrimination, she filed suit in state court asserting disability discrimination in violation of Chapter 21 of the Texas Labor Code.
The Texas Court’s Analysis
The county argued that the former employee did not have a claim under Chapter 21 for the release of confidential health information because Chapter 21 did not provide for such a claim. The employee urged that case law interpreting the ADA recognized that a claim for disability discrimination included a claim for disclosure of confidential health information and thus the claim should be recognized under Chapter 21 as well.
The appellate court reviewed the differences in the statutory language between the ADA and Chapter 21 and noted that the ADA specifically addressed an employer’s obligations to keep employee health information confidential, including information regarding the medical condition or history of an applicant or employee. The court specifically observed that Chapter 21 contained no such provisions. Therefore, interpretations of the ADA could not be used to hold that Chapter 21’s prohibition of disability discrimination included a claim for disclosure of confidential health information. As a result, the court dismissed the claim.
Employers frequently assume that since most charges of discrimination filed in Texas are dual filed with the EEOC and the TWC-CRD, that the laws are exactly the same. However, as this case exemplifies, differences do exist between federal and state anti-discrimination language. Additionally, this decision establishes that a state law claim of disability discrimination under Chapter 21 does not include a claim for release of confidential health information.