The federal Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (“GINA”) makes it unlawful for an employer “to fail or refuse to hire, or to discharge, . . . or otherwise to discriminate against any employee . . . because of genetic information with respect to the employee.” The law defines such genetic information as including the genetic tests of family members of an individual. Does this mean that an employee automatically has a viable lawsuit if he is discharged based on a genetic disease of a family member? The answer, as a plaintiff in the Western District of Virginia recently discovered, is “no”.
In Poore v. Peterbilt of Bristol, L.L.C., an employee of Peterbilt claimed that he was terminated after disclosing in a health insurance questionnaire that his wife had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. After he submitted the completed questionnaire, Peterbilt’s office manager allegedly asked the plaintiff when his wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and the prognosis. Three days later, he was terminated.
The plaintiff claimed that his termination violated GINA based on the theory that he was terminated as a result of his wife’s medical condition. The plaintiff argued that because the statute defines “genetic information” as including “genetic tests of family members of an individual,” and because he was allegedly fired based on the results of his wife’s genetic tests, he was entitled to compensation for his termination. The judge disagreed.
Consulting the statute’s legislative history, the judge noted that the intent of GINA is to prohibit employers from making a predictive assessment concerning an individual’s propensity to have an inheritable genetic disease or disorder based on an inheritable disease or disorder of a family member. The key, according to the court, is whether the family member’s genetic traits are being used as a surrogate for the genetic traits of the employee. The fact that an individual family member has been diagnosed with a disease or disorder is not considered “genetic information” if that disease or disorder relates only to the afflicted family member and not to the employee as a disease or disorder that he may also have. Because the family member was a spouse, and not a blood relative of the employee, the employee could not show that the employer viewed the disease as one that he may have. Thus, a claim that the employee was terminated because of a family member’s genetic traits that do not plausibly suggest any genetic traits of the employee is insufficient to maintain a lawsuit under GINA.