John Doe v. The city of New York, the city of New York Commission on Human Rights and Dennis Deleon

The plaintiff filed a civil rights complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that the defendant-appellees had violated his constitutional right to privacy by revealing to the public the details of a conciliation agreement settling a discrimination complaint lodged against Delta Airlines with the N.Y. Commission on Human Rights.

Decision | 01 January 1994
Case 15 F. 3d 264


In 1989, the plaintiff-appellant learned that he was HIV-positive. He did not disclose his status to anyone, with the exception of his medical doctor. The plaintiff was an employee of Pan American World Airways during PanAm’s bankruptcy proceedings and Delta’s acquisition of many of the company’s services. He interviewed for a position with Delta but was not offered one.

Subsequently, on 10 February 1992, he filed a complaint with the city of New York Commission (the “Commission”) against Delta on the ground that he was denied employment based on his sexual orientation and perceived HIV status. On 3 August 1992, the Commission, Delta and the plaintiff-appellant entered into a conciliation agreement, pursuant to which the plaintiff was hired by Delta as a customer service agent and received compensation. The agreement also included a confidentiality clause which prevented the Commission and Delta from disclosing Doe’s name through any oral or written communication. Despite this clause, on 6 August 1992, the Commission issued a press release disclosing the terms of the conciliation agreement without the plaintiff’s knowledge. The plaintiff alleged that, even though the press release did not mention his name, it contained sufficient information to allow those who knew or worked with him to identify him as the individual described in the press release. Consequently, the plaintiff’s colleagues became aware of his HIV status, causing the plaintiff to suffer discrimination and embarrassment at work. He ultimately brought an action in the District Court, alleging that the Commission had breached his constitutional right to privacy by disclosing his HIV status to the public. The District Court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a cause of action, holding that the plaintiff had waived his right to privacy by bringing a discrimination complaint to the Commission, thereby making his HIV status a matter of public record. The plaintiff appealed this decision.

Decision and Reasoning

First, the Court of Appeals held that individuals who are infected with HIV clearly possess a constitutional right to privacy. Citing the case of Whalen v. Roe, the Court stated that there was a constitutional right to privacy protecting “the individual interest in avoiding disclosure of personal matters”. It further stated that the “extension of the right to confidentiality to personal medical information recognized that there are few matters which are quite so personal as the status of one’s health”. It therefore held that the plaintiff had a constitutional right to confidentiality in his HIV status.

Second, the Court held that the purpose of the Commission is to protect the human rights of individuals, including the right to privacy. By claiming that all information provided to the Commission becomes automatically a matter of public record, it stated that the very nature of the Commission is undermined. The Court held that the conciliation agreement was not a matter of public record until the Commission chose to make it so. The Court therefore reversed the judgement of the District Court.