Search SciPol

Brought to you by
What it does 

Lowe v. Atlas Logistics Group Retail Services LLC, 102 F.Supp.3d 1360 (N.D. Ga. 2015) is the first case defining the scope of genetic privacy afforded to employees under the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA).

GINA defines genetic information as “information about (i) such individual’s genetic tests, (ii) the genetic tests of family members of such individual, and (iii) the manifestation of a disease or disorder in family members of such individual.” The statute protects employees against genetic testing, defined as “an analysis of human DNA, RNA, chromosomes, proteins, or metabolites, that detects genotypes, mutations, or chromosomal changes,” done or required by employers.

The issue presented was whether the employer’s obtaining DNA from the employees to identify the source of feces left in the workplace violated GINA.

The Court ruled in favor of the employees. The holdings of the court included:

  • that the DNA analysis requested by Atlas qualified as a genetic test constituting a request for genetic information from employees, and was deemed a violation of GINA.
  • upholding a broad definition of genetic information that “errs on the side of prohibiting employer-mandated or requested DNA testing.”
  • the right to privacy was enumerated in the statute’s unambiguous language, and was reinforced by clear evidence of legislative intent.
The facts 

Atlas, a grocery transportation and storage service, began finding feces in its Warehouse. An investigation identified the plaintiffs as employees whose work schedules overlapped with the estimated timeframe of the defecation. Atlas requested DNA samples from the  employees in an attempt to identify the so-called “devious defecator,” and submitted them to a forensic laboratory for comparison to the fecal matter found in the warehouse. The DNA was compared using Short Tandem Repeat (STR) analysis and did not reveal a match with the plaintiffs. It is notable that STR analysis does not reveal an individual’s propensity for disease. Nevertheless, the plaintiffs filed discrimination charges, citing the gathering and disclosure of their genetic information by Atlas as a GINA violation. 

Decision Points 

The Court held that since the defendants’ actions constituted a “genetic test,” which GINA defines as including the “detect[ion] of genotypes, mutations, or chromosomal changes,” Atlas had violated GINA. Core points of the decision include:

Statutory Language

  • Atlas disputed whether the analysis detected “genotypes [and] mutations,” since identification, rather than the determination of a disease or disorder, was the purpose of the testing.
    • The Court rejected this claim, citing the defendant’s expert witness, Dr. Julie Howenstine, who conceded that the analysis performed detected both “genotypes [and] mutations.”
    • The Court also rejected Atlas’ argument that the statute should be narrowly interpreted to cover only genetic tests “related to one’s propensity to disease.”

Evidence of Legislative Intent

The Court found that the legislative history of GINA supported a broad interpretation of gentic testing:

  • Broad prohibition of employer-requested genetic testing is consistent with the Congressional Findings’ characterization that GINA as a “basic standard necessary to fully protect the public from discrimination and allay their concerns about the potential for discrimination.”
  • When previously brought before Congress, the narrower definition endorsed by Atlas was not incorporated into the statute; the prior rejection of this minority view during the legislation’s development is taken as clear evidence of legislative intent.
Relevant Science 

New sequencing technology is making it progressively easier to learn about a person’s genetic makeup. Genetic testing can be used to identify changes or differences in a person’s chromosomes, genes, proteins or metabolites, for purposes of human identification, as it was in this case, or for determining a person’s propensity for disease. There are thousands of available “genetics tests” and more are constantly being developed. Depending upon the type of genetic test utilized, different kinds of information about an individual may be obtained.

The type of genetic test used in this case examines sections of the genome called Short Tandem Repeats (STR).  This type of test is routinely used in law enforcement to compare an unknown sample containing DNA, such as evidence gathered from a crime scene, to a set of known samples, either contained in a DNA data base or obtained from specifically identified individuals.  Based on current technology, this type of test can only be used  for purposes of human identification, but does not reveal propensity for disease or other aspects of a persons genetic makeup. This process generally involves the sequencing of 13 specific loci in DNA, which the FBI has identified as most accurate in determining identity. Use of these 13 locations vastly decreases the likelihood of a duplicate profile within the population, to odds of less than 1 in 800 trillion people.

Where & When 
Status 

The defendant may appeal the $2.2 million compensatory and punitive damage award that the jury awarded to the plaintiffs to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals

Primary Author 
Kushal Kadakia
Editor(s) 
Thomas Williams, JD, MBE, & Allison Roder, PhD Candidate
Recommended Citation 

Duke SciPol, “Lowe v. Atlas Logistics Group Retail Services LLC” available at http://scipol.duke.edu/content/district-court-northern-georgia-rules-privacy-rights-under-genetic-information-and (06/20/2016).