The Paul Cronan case highlights some of America’s prejudices and the reason why employment laws are necessary. Mr.Cronan was a long-time employee (thirteen-year tenured employee) of New England Telephone Company (NET), whose sexual preferences caused him to contact Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). As a service technician, his ailment left him missing work often to gain necessary treatment. His supervisor confronted him asking for explanation as to the missed work, and even though this supervisor promised confidentiality, word quickly spread of Mr. Cronan’s ailment throughout the organization. Prejudices were evident as outlined in the case study, leaving him to fear for his safety on a daily basis. As his company illness benefits were discontinued, NET placed Mr. Cronan on Long-Term Disability, effectively terminating his employment and leaving him with half his normal monthly income.
In December of 1985, Mr. Cronan enlisted the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (CLUM) to assist in filing a civil lawsuit charging violations of privacy law and discrimination against him. Through an out-of-court settlement it was agreed that Mr. Cronan could return to work and accommodations would be made at NET for his reinstatement.
On October 22, 1986, twenty-nine employees of NET walked off their jobs to protest the return to work by a co-worker afflicted with Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). For the preceding sixteen months the affected, Mr. Cronan had been embroiled in litigation touching upon issues raised pertaining to his employment status.
Even though the case did not go to trial, no legal decisions were made and this suit established no legal precedent, here are some relevant legal issues.
- Was Mr. Cronan’s reasonable expectation of privacy violated?
- Did NET follow Employment Laws?
- Is Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) recognized as a legally remediable disability?
- Do persons afflicted with AIDS enjoy a legally protected status?
- Was Mr. Cronan’s proposed discharge from employment discriminatory, or pretextual?
Applying Relevant Facts to the Legal Principle
Was Mr.Cronan’s reasonable expectation of privacy violated?
This case was decided in accordance with Massachusetts statutory and case law. Efforts to remove the case to federal court jurisdiction were denied. The net result was that upon remand, Mr. Cronan could pursue compensatory damages in civil state court. I could not find specific Massachusetts
laws regarding privacy and discrimination touching upon this case. However, based on the facts provided, the evidence indicates that Mr. Cronan’s reasonable expectations of privacy were violated in writing, through discussions between workers, and acts of the company and workers in response to learning about the nature of his illness, as more particularly set forth in the case summary.
Mr. Cronan was entitled to privacy and confidentiality, and he made it clear that this was important to him. Word about his medical condition spread rapidly and was widespread throughout the organization. It can reasonably be concluded that this information came about as a result of the acts of company management and officials. Dissemination of this information constituted a breach of fiduciary duty owed by NET to Mr. Cronan.
It could be argued that an agent of the company guaranteed Mr. Cronan’s expectation of privacy regarding his medical condition when his supervisor Mr. O’Brien told Mr. Cronan that the information would go no further. While the case text states that it was company “practice” to share information up the supervisory line if it impacted an employee’s attendance, it does not state if it was written policy to keep this knowledge only within management. It could also be argued that there was a conflict between the employee’s right to privacy and the need of his coworkers to know about his condition so they could protect themselves. For example, if he were to be injured on the job, his coworkers would need to know not to come in direct contact with his blood.
Did NET follow Employment Laws?
The company followed established company policy when it notified Mr. Cronan that he was no longer considered an employee because he had exhausted his sick benefits and would go on Long Term Disability. The company was acting within the law when they offered him his same position, if he could obtain medical certification of his ability to return to work, and offered to make reasonable accommodations if it was determined he needed to be restricted in his duties. However, “reasonable accommodation” is a subjective term and may or may not include reassignment to a different location.
It is unclear from the case text whether or not Mr. Cronan was truly disabled and therefore belonged to the “handicapped” or “disabled” class cited in the case text as protected classes, since it does not indicate whether or not his doctor restricted his duties due to his condition. The law is vague on what constitutes a disability therefore one cannot assume that his condition rendered him disabled and therefore protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The case failed to meet the four standards for illegal termination because he was not rejected despite his qualifications. In fact, he was offered his job back. It could be argued that NET created a “disparate impact” on Mr. Cronan by divulging his condition to the other employees in the company due to the fact that this knowledge adversely impacted his relationship with his coworkers and superiors as well as exposed him to the threat of physical harm.
Although NET alleges that it acted within established policy guidelines when it divulged Mr. Cronan’s condition to supervisors and managers, it is unclear if or why they did not take ordinary care to keep his medical condition confidential instead of allowing it to be communicated to employees. What would have happened if he been sick with say the flu.
Is Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) recognized as a legally remediable disability?
At the time of the Cronan case, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was not in effect. This law would have provided Mr. Cronan greater protection. Rather, the case was decided upon application of state law. In 1985, AIDS was a relatively new medical condition, and there was not much medical, let alone legal, conclusions formulated concerning this medical condition and, therefore, limited legal precedent recognizing AIDS as a remediable disability.
While people afflicted with AIDS are recognized as having a legally remediable disability, the same was not true when the Cronan case was decided. The parties achieved resolution of the dispute without specifically making a determination of this issue.
Do persons afflicted with AIDS enjoy a legally protected status?
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 defines disability as “any physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of an individual’s major life activities”. People with AIDS are considered disabled within the parameters of the ADA, especially since the fear of other workers can interfere with their ability to work, which is a major life activity.
Also, the 1964 Civil Rights Act is a piece of legislation that protects against illegal discrimination if an employer discriminates against one of these protected classes in the areas of hiring, firing, compensating, terms and conditions of employment, and the promoting of employees. This application exists in the case as Mr. Cronan claims to be wrongfully discharged and discriminated against for having AIDS. Mr. Cronan seeks only to work full time as he had been released to do. However, his frequently required time off for medical treatments and hospitalizations caused the actions of NET. The ADA requires employers to “make reasonable accommodations for workers with disabilities”.
The facts in the Cronan case are packed with examples of the fear exhibited by fellow workers of Mr. Cronan. In view of the fact that little was known about the transmission modes of AIDS, perhaps this was not unreasonable. The fear and anxiety expressed was obvious. While not necessarily directed toward Mr. Cronan individually, he was filled with dread and concern about his safety and well being in the workplace, in addition to battling the physical and mental effects of the AIDS illness.
Considering also that the ADA was not in effect at the time the Cronan was decided, there was substantial evidence that efforts by NET to strike a balance between the conflicting interests of Mr. Cronan individually and rights of the workers to enjoy a safe working environment were inefficient. It may be harsh to cast judgment on NET without remembering that legislation specifically addressing AIDS matters and accordance of protected disability status had not been developed until subsequent years.
Was Mr. Cronan’s proposed discharge from employment discriminatory, or pretextual?
It can be concluded that the acts of NET were designed to seek a means by which to discharge Mr. Cronan, or at least to encourage him to quit or seek long term disability. Examples of this behavior include discussions held between management personnel, letters sent to Mr. Cronan, and failure to hold sensitive information in confidence, despite repeated protestations by Mr. Cronan.
Also, NET was initially reluctant to extend disability benefits to Mr. Cronan, or to reassign him. The fact that subsequent revisions to company policy regarding employees with AIDS situations were made, showed evidence that NET was uncomfortable dealing with the issue and would have preferred his release, voluntarily or otherwise, from employment.
To conclude, the net result was that actions by NET were discriminatory based upon the totality of the evidence and that any proposed dismissal of Mr. Cronan from continued employment was motivated largely by reasons other than maintenance of a safe working environment.
- Were actions of NET toward Mr. Cronan ethically proper?
- T have the right to protect the confidentiality of Mr. Cronan’s illness?
- Does NET have the ethical responsibility to protect the rights of all employees?
- What are the contemporary ethical implications of the Paul Cronan case?
Applying the relevant facts to the Ethic duty
Were actions of NET toward Paul Cronan ethically proper?
This issue illustrates that there can be conflict between what is “legally and ethically” right. While they are often compatible, there are situations that cause varying results. Per “Business Ethics – Concepts and Cases, 6th Edition,” Manual Velasquez refers to ideologies that encompass different schools of thought and guiding principles of human behavior. It is clear that variances exist and decisions contrast depending upon the theory embraced.
From another one of our required readings, Jane Mallor “The Legal Environment of Business, 11th Edition” diagrams the jurisprudential schools of thought. In particular, under the theory of natural law, we learn that “unjust law is not law” and that they should not be enforced and obeyed. While a company may be acting within the strict confines of the law, business behavior does not necessarily agree with what ethicists would consider to be proper. From Mr. Cronan’s perspective, most people would object to having sensitive medical information disclosed to others without our permission. Moreover, we would be offended by reluctance of NET to make what we would consider to be reasonable accommodations to address our needs based upon our unique circumstances.
Did NET have the right to protect the confidentiality of Mr. Cronan’s illness?
First NET has a right to protect the confidentiality of Mr. Cronan’s illness. I believe it was okay for the first line supervisor to ask the question as to the source of illness and that Mr. Cronan could have declined to comment; however, Mr. Cronan volunteered the information upon promises of confidentiality. The supervisor does have a responsibility to keep his managers above him informed, and was bound as management to communicate the information upward, and this action should not have threatened the confidentiality. All managers should have maintained the same strict guidelines to protect the interest of their employee.
Therefore, when AIDS education seminars/classes are performed prior to the return of an employee who had been absent for an extended period, it is not possible to prevent rumors and the realization employees will come to upon his return. Confidentiality can and should be maintained wherever possible; however, Mr. Cronan himself could have leaked the information and we would not have known. This must be difficult to practice unless a company and employee come to some agreement as to an explanation for absences and “accommodations” made on his behalf, which itself is challenged ethically.
Does NET have the ethical responsibility to protect the rights of all employees?
Because this disease is only spread through blood transfers or through sexual contact, the fear of this disease spreading is over-anxiety and poor education on the part of his fellow workers. I believe the company looked into these considerations and addressed them properly, though not timely. The education of employees in regards to this situation was not accomplished fully. As ethical principals imply impartiality, protection of both Mr. Cronan and his fellow employees could have been met; however, beyond the education on the disease, NET had an ethical responsibility to educate on prejudices surrounding the disease and enacting measure to protect Mr. Cronan from physical harm. Violence in the workplace cannot be tolerated at any level
What are the contemporary ethical implications of the Paul Cronan case?
As I was reading the case, I couldn’t help but think of the Magic Johnson controversy in the early 1990’s and all the media coverage surrounding the revelation by a major basketball star that he was battling HIV/AIDS. Uncertainty and fear of the unknown concerning any topic and especially potential live-threatening illnesses can evoke emotional, though not always rational, responses. The point here is that we take the person and the facts as they are and perform evaluation based upon conditions, as they exist. For example, in retrospect, much has been learned about HIV/AIDS in the past twenty years. Yet, in 1985, very little was known about it.
Recent history has shown us that society has responded to the special needs of persons suffering from AIDS. In addition to laws enacted on the legal side, society as a whole has dedicated medical research, charitable donations, assisted living programs, and awareness campaigns to address physical and mental disabilities cases, including AIDS. Society is conscious of challenging circumstances of those that are disabled, and efforts have been made to be more accommodating of disabled employees in the workplace. Nonetheless, such actions are in their infancy and extensive development needs to be pursued to balance the often-competing interests of individuals and the workforce in its entirety.
The Paul Cronan case is an example of legal and ethical reactions associated with minorities in general, and disabled persons in particular. It illustrates the interplay between law and ethics, and that mechanical application of the law does not automatically produce a correct result.
The case was settled out of court and we will never know how a jury would have seen the facts of this case. However, even if it had been found that New England Telephone Company followed the letter of the law, it failed to live up to the higher standard of ethical treatment of its employee, Paul Cronan. Mr. Cronan alluded to the fact that there was a great deal of prejudice against homosexuals in the working class neighborhood of South Boston where he worked.
It is evident from the case text that there was a normal amount of interaction between management and employees, therefore I assume that they were aware of the hostility expressed toward Mr. Cronan by his coworkers including death threats. It may even be assumed that management had similar feelings if they too were from this neighborhood. By failing to keep his personal medical information confidential they exposed him to a great deal of unnecessary danger and emotional stress.
Regardless of a person’s sexual orientation, it was unethical behavior on the part of NET that contributed to Mr. Cronan’s inability to work and support himself. NET made a public statement at a news conference announcing the settlement, which it did not treat its employees with insensitivity but their actions seem to contradict this. They even drafted a corporate AIDS policy stating that AIDS is treated like any other illness contracted by an employee. I wonder under the circumstances if an employee with lung cancer would have suffered the same invasion of privacy, humiliation and harassment that Paul Cronan did. Pretty scary isn’t it.