Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Court: Employer has no free speech right to republish worker healthcare data that state provides conditionally

Confidential (Nick Youngson Alpha Stock Images CC BY-SA 3.0)
An employer has no First Amendment right to republish the identity of workers who relied on publicly subsidized healthcare when the state provides the names conditionally, for restricted use, the Massachusetts Appeals Court held yesterday.

A state program imposed assessments on employers whose employees relied on publicly subsidized healthcare.  The state offered to tell the employer which employees triggered assessment, so that the employer could review, and if appropriate challenge, the assessment. But the names came with strings attached: employers were required to promise that they will use the names in the administrative process only and not republish them.

Emerald Home Care, Inc., challenged the assessment program and conditional disclosures as violative of procedural due process and the First Amendment.

Affirming the Superior Court, the Appeals Court rejected both arguments.  As to due process, the state provided employers ample notice and opportunity to be heard in resisting the assessments.  As to the First Amendment, the state may attach conditions to access to confidential information.

In the First Amendment analysis, the court cited two U.S. Supreme Court oldies but goodies: LAPD v. United Reporting (1999) and Seattle Times v. Rhinehart (1984).  In LAPD, the Court allowed a statute to condition access to criminal histories on non-commercial use.  In Seattle Times, the Court allowed a protective order on discovery disclosures in a defamation-and-privacy case in which a newspaper was the defendant.

Justice Desmond
The Appeals Court applied intermediate scrutiny, drawn from Seattle Times.  The court reasoned that confidentiality in healthcare insurance information is an important state interest, and the restrictions on disclosure were closely tailored to the purpose of maintaining confidentiality while allowing the employer limited access for the purpose of administrative review.

The case is not remarkable for its holding, but it marks an ongoing tension between U.S. and foreign law over free speech, privacy, and data protection.  In the United States, the First Amendment often is a wrench in the works of government efforts to regulate information downstream from its disclosure to a third party.  Legal systems elsewhere in the world are more comfortable with the notion that a person's privacy rights may tag along with information in its downstream transfer from hand to hand, outweighing the free speech right to republish.

I noted some years ago that in some areas of U.S. law, including freedom of information (FOI), or access to information, we can see examples of American privacy expectations that accord with, not diverge from, European norms.  Downstream control by contract has been a key advancement in making some jurisdictions willing to furnish court records to information brokers.  Binding a broker to adjust records later as a condition of receipt helps to solve problems such as expungement, the American judiciary's equivalent to the right to be forgotten.

The case is Emerald Home Care, Inc. v. Department of Unemployment Assistance, No. AC 20-P-188 (Mass. App. Ct. Feb. 2, 2021).  Justice Kenneth V. Desmond Jr. authored the opinion for a unanimous panel that also comprised Chief Justice Green and Justice Lemire.

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