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Employer's practice of collecting personal medical information to support a transfer request deemed appropriate

PIPEDA Case Summary #2003-119

[Principles 4.4 and 4.4.1 of Schedule 1; section 5(3)]

Complaint

An employee of a telecommunications company complained that his employer was attempting to collect more personal information about him than necessary in order to determine if he could be accommodated in another position for medical reasons.

Summary of Investigation

According to the company's policy on extended sick leave, the employee is requested to sign a consent form authorizing his or her physician to disclose medical information related to the employee's illness to the company's occupational health professionals and to discuss the matter directly with them. The form contains the company's purposes for collecting this information, namely, consideration for eligibility benefits and establishment of fitness to work. The form asks for information about the employee's medical condition, treatment, and prognosis. If the employee's absence continues beyond the projected date of return indicated on the form, the manager asks the employee to fill out a second form.

The company's occupational health staff, doctors and nurses who are bound by their respective codes of ethics, review the form and provide managers only with information relating to the abilities and limitations of the employee. Detailed information about the company's policy is available to all employees via its Web site and in a brochure.

The company has policies and procedures in place to safeguard employee medical information. Specifically, health information is kept in a separate file and stored in secure areas. Computerized health information is also protected.

In the fall of 2001, the complainant went on leave for medical reasons. At the company's request, the complainant authorized his physician to fill out a form indicating his prognosis, limitations, treatments and abilities. The doctor provided a diagnosis and information about treatment, but did not fill out the portions concerning limitations or abilities. In total, the doctor provided three similar reports, all indicating that the prognosis was unknown.

The complainant's doctor later wrote to the company, indicating the diagnosis and that the complainant could return to work on a part-time basis. The doctor supported the complainant's request that he be transferred to a different work environment, one involving operational duties instead of office-related ones. Since the company had not yet received a request from the complainant to this effect, the occupational health services nurse requested additional information from the doctor about the medical condition that would restrict the complainant from working in an office environment. She also asked for information about the complainant's ability to do physical work, in light of an injury that he had sustained some years earlier and that had resulted in his transfer to an office job.

Subsequently, the company received the complainant's formal request for a transfer on medical grounds. It then asked the complainant and his physician for additional medical information and indicated that an independent medical evaluation might be required. After the company refused the complainant's request, his doctor again wrote to the employer in support of the complainant's request to be transferred on medical grounds. The company responded by saying that a specialist needed to be consulted before it could reconsider the request. The complainant and his union objected to the requirement, arguing that the company should accept the medical evaluations of the complainant's physician. Nevertheless, he subsequently returned to his office position.

Commissioner's Findings

Issued February 17, 2003

Jurisdiction: As of January 1, 2001, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (the Act) applies to any federal work, undertaking, or business. Moreover, as of January 1, 2002, the Act applies to personal health information. The Commissioner had jurisdiction in this case because a telecommunications company is a federal work, undertaking, or business as defined in the Act and because the complaint pertained in good part to the company's management of health information in the year 2002.

Application: Principle 4.4 establishes that the collection of personal information shall be limited to that which is necessary for the purposes identified by the organization. Principle 4.4.1 goes on to state that the organization shall not collect personal information indiscriminately. Both the amount and type of information collected shall be limited to that which is necessary to fulfil the purposes identified. Organizations shall specify the type of information collected as part of their information-handling policies and practices. Section 5(3) states that an organization may collect, use or disclose personal information only for purposes that a reasonable person would consider are appropriate in the circumstances.

The Commissioner considered the company's purposes for collecting the personal information of the complainant to be legitimate, appropriate and in keeping with section 5(3) of the Act. The Commissioner was further satisfied that the company limited its collection of the complainant's personal information to that which was necessary for those purposes, as per the requirements of Principle 4.4. He also determined that the company had in place policies and procedures that outlined these purposes, how the personal information was handled and by whom, and the respective roles of the parties involved, and that they were available to all employees, thus satisfying the company's obligations under Principle 4.4.1.

Accordingly, he concluded that the complaint was not well-founded.

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