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Workplace Privacy, Data Management & Security Report

Public Employers Wrestle With Data Breaches

The State of Minnesota has been smacked with a number of privacy-related district court lawsuits recently.

The most recent dispute arose after the state of Minnesota hired a Texas-based company, Lookout Services to perform E-Verify services for state employees as part of a U.S. Department of Homeland Security program to ensure that all employees of the state and its contractors have Social Security numbers and are authorized to work in the United States. A reporter for Minnesota Public Radio, Sasha Aslanian, discovered confidential data from state officials posted on the company’s Web site, and reported the story along with a recitation of other recent privacy blunders by the state.  The story triggered a mandatory notification of a potential data breach under Minnesota law. In response, Lookout Services filed a lawsuit against both the state and Minnesota Public Radio alleging that Aslanian hacked into the site in violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

A state agency, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights ("MDHR"), was the target of another district court action brought by a teacher who had been named as a witness in an action by the MDHR against the Anoka-Hennepin school district. The MDHR charge alleged in part that the teacher singled out a student for harassment because the student was gay. The MDHR settled the case, to which the teacher was not a party, with the school district and featured a description of the case as its “case of the month” on its website. The teacher sued and successfully obtained a temporary restraining order, in part requiring the MDHR to take her name off the website and amend it to refer only to a “female teacher.” The case is captioned Cleveland v. Minnesota Department of Human Rights.

In the third case, a state court dismissed a claim that the Minnesota Department of Health violated the Minnesota Genetic Privacy Act (GPA) by gathering and storing blood specimens from newborn babies and sharing them with medical facilities without the parents’ consent. The GPA prohibits collection or use of genetic information without informed consent, “unless otherwise expressly provided by law.” In an 11-page order, Hennepin County judge found that the blood samples were biological samples, not genetic information and, regardless, the state’s Newborn Screening Law was a statutory exception to the GPA. Bearder, et al v. State of Minnesota. This is a rare example of a private lawsuit under a genetic privacy law, but we can expect to see more as new legislation is enacted in this area, such as the Federal Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act.

The last case involves the neighboring state of Wisconsin and comes to us from lawyer Peter Nickitas who recently obtained a $40,000 jury verdict in federal court against Dunn County Wisconsin for violation of Wisconsin’s Open Records Laws.  The case, Sheffler v. County of Dunn, involved a Minnesota citizen who was arrested in Madison, Wisconsin and spent time in the Dunn County Jail. A few weeks later he requested copies of video footage from his time in jail. The County failed to respond to his request in a timely fashion and the footage was copied over before it could be produced. Plaintiff Troy Scheffler represented himself pro se in defeating the County’s motion for summary judgment  and Nickitas represented him at trial. 

"These cases all demonstrate that private employers are not alone in facing the complexities and exposure of managing personal information about individuals, particularly employees",  observes Joe Saccomano, head of the Jackson Lewis public sector practice group