Employee’s right to privacy to be decided on a case-by-case basis
Cooksey v Boyer, 289 F.3d 513
If the employer discloses that a public employee is under treatment related to his or her mental health, has the employer violated the individual's "constitutional rights to privacy and substantive due process." This was the significant issue in the Cooksey case.
The United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit, ruled that the issue must be decided on a case-by-case basis and in this instance its "holding is limited to the facts of this case." It then cautioned that the decision should not be viewed as implying that unauthorized publication of any and all information relating to an individual's mental health is constitutionally permitted."
1. In 1990, Donald G. Cooksey was appointed chief of police of Potosi, Missouri. In the spring of 1998, Cooksey sought treatment for stress and, in accordance with City policy, he submitted a statement from his psychologist explaining his need for an excused leave.
2. At a regularly scheduled meeting of Potosi's Board of Aldermen on July 13, 1998, then-Mayor Boyer disclosed in open session that Cooksey was undergoing treatment for stress by a psychologist. A discussion ensued which resulted in an agreement that Cooksey would need to provide a physician's report confirming his fitness for duty.
Cooksey sued, contending that Boyer's disclosure and the Board members' subsequent discussion of his mental health treatment violated his constitutional right to privacy under the Fourteenth Amendment. Cooksey's theory: "notions of substantive due process contained within the Fourteenth Amendment safeguard individuals from unwarranted governmental intrusions into their personal lives."
In sustaining the district court's dismissal of Cooksey's petition, the Circuit Court said that in this decision “We merely recognize that all mental health information is not created equal and should not be treated categorically under a privacy rights analysis. In this instance, the disclosure of Cooksey's treatment for stress does not meet the exacting standard mandated by Eighth Circuit case law.”
The court explained that "[n]ot every disclosure of personal information will implicate the constitutional right to privacy." As the Supreme Court cautioned in Paul v Davis, 424 U.S. 693, a decision addressing "unwarranted expansion" of the right to privacy: "The personal rights found in [the] guarantee of personal privacy must be limited to those which are `fundamental' or `implicit within the concept of ordered liberty'."
In Whalen v Roe, 429 US 589, the Supreme Court said that protection of the "individual interest in avoiding disclosure of personal matters," has been characterized as "the right to confidentiality."
The standard, according to the Eighth Circuit's ruling, is that to "violate the constitutional right of privacy the information disclosed must be either a shocking degradation or an egregious humiliation ... or a flagrant bre[a]ch of a pledge of confidentiality which was instrumental in obtaining the personal information."