Paul Cronan


Cronan Case


Facts:


Paul Cronan was employed by New England Telephone Company (NET) in 1973 as a file clerk and promoted to service technician in 1983. In 1985, for a period of six month, Cronan began sporadically missing work due to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) related symptoms.


Cronan’s supervisor requested explanation of the absences and assured Cronan that this would be kept confidential. Cronan explained his AIDS status, was excused for the day, and subsequently ordered to see the company doctor. Two days later Cronan was informed by a co-worker that she had heard he had AIDS and that other co-workers were threatening Cronan with bodily harm should he return. Fearing for his safety and health Cronan requested he be placed on medical leave, this was granted with benefits.


In late August 1985 Cronan felt well enough to return to work. He obtained the required medical fitness certification but was hesitant to return to the South Boston office he had worked in. Informed that disparaging graffiti had been left on the bathroom stalls he used, and that managers within the company had promised to have his work areas disinfected, Cronan was fearful for his safety and requested a transfer. A response to his request was not forthcoming. Cronan fell ill again in early September and received a letter offering his original position with no mention of the transfer request.


In December of 1985 Cronan, assisted by the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, filed a $1.45 million civil lawsuit in state court against NET charging violations of state privacy law for disclosure of Cronan’s illness. The suite also alleged discrimination, claiming that AIDS was a handicap and thus was covered by statutes prohibiting discrimination.


Cronan was hospitalized several more times but by the spring of 1986 had improved. In June, he was notified that his illness benefits had elapsed and was being placed on long-term disability, which meant he was no longer a NET employee.


In October of 1986, Cronan and NET reached an agreement allowing Cronan to return to work the following week.


After his return Cronan faced “a hostile environment” which included written threats to gays and lesbians, union grievances filed stating Cronan was a violation of the health and safety agreement, and workers’ refusal to enter the same building with Cronan.


The union alleged NET was not providing sufficient education to employees concerning the risks associated with AIDS. NET maintained it had undertaken a “good faith effort” to educate employees concerning AIDS and the myths associated with AIDS.


Legal Analysis
Issues:





Cronan was terminated when he received notice his benefits had lapsed. Was this a legal termination under relevant employment law?


Were privacy or employment rights violated when Cronan’s condition was made known to the workforce at large?


In light of Cronan’s illness, where violations committed under the American’s with Disabilities Act?


Cronan’s illness could be perceived as sexual in nature. Was Cronan subjected to sexual harassment under the meaning of the applicable statues?


Application:





Cronan’s long history with illness and the related attendance record set into motion the process leading to his termination. The company followed established procedures when notifying Cronan of his eventual termination and placement in long-term disability status.


The Civil Rights Act (CRA) of 1964 applies to this case because NET employs more than fifteen employees. The act protects workers and prospective workers from discrimination in hiring, terminating, compensating or setting the terms and conditions of employment based on sex, color, religion, race or national origin.


Cronan was not an obvious member of a protected class. However, the actions of management and the nature of his illness created a situation in which Cronan was subject to harassment of a sexual nature, which is covered by the Act.


When management leaked Cronan’s condition to the general workforce he was faced with threatening and demeaning graffiti, threats to his safety and barriers to his continued employment. Many of the threats revolved around the assumption Cronan was gay and had contracted the disease through homosexual activity. The continued threats against his person created a hostile work environment, which is firmly established as a violation under title IIV of the CRA by the Supreme Court in the 1986 case Meritor v. Vinson.