Court Allows GINA Claims to Proceed Against Employer Wellness Program

In Glenn Williams et al. v. City of Chicago, an Illinois federal district court judge has given the green light for some city employees to proceed with their suit against their employer based on violations of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). The employees also had brought claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, but the judge dismissed those claims.

Employees of the City of Chicago and their covered spouses could participate in the wellness program offered by its health plan free of charge. The employer deducted $50 every month from the paycheck of employees who failed to participate in the wellness program and an additional $50 for covered spouses who failed to participate in the plan. The wellness program required spouses to undergo a medical examination and their covered spouses to submit medical history information.

The judge dismissed the claims of the covered spouses under GINA because only employees can bring GINA claims. The judge also dismissed the GINA claims of employees without spouses covered by the employer’s health plan since the wellness program had not obtained genetic information from those employees. The only employees who can proceed with GINA claims are those with spouses covered under the city medical plan. These employees allege that the program required them to provide genetic information when it asked them to complete questionnaires about their spouses’ medical histories.

GINA allows an employer to collect genetic information if the employee provides “prior knowing, voluntary, and written authorization.” The disputed issue, in this case, is whether the city’s wellness program is voluntary due to the financial penalty for non-participation.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued regulations on the voluntariness of employer wellness programs for the ADA and GINA in 2016. A federal court invalidated critical provisions of those regulations, which led the EEOC to propose new regulations in 2021. The EEOC withdrew those proposed regulations after the Biden administration ordered a regulatory freeze, leaving no clear guidance from the EEOC on this subject.

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