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
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.
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?
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. The fact that many of Cronan’s antagonists were also men has no
bearing on whether or not the actions constituted sexual harassment. In
Oncale v. Sundowner, a case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court subsequent to
the Cronan case, the court ruled that Title IIV applied to the standard not
only to cases of classic sexual discrimination, but also to those were the
employer was discriminating against members of the their same sex.
It could be argued that a disparate impact was established when
management divulged the personal information to employees. However, since
the acts of management did not have a discriminatory effect upon a class of
employees protected by the Act, this would not apply.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed by congress in 1990
would have provided Cronan additional relief had it been enacted prior to
The ADA protects workers from discrimination based on disabilities.
The act defines a disability as “any physical or mental impairment that
substantially limits one or more of an individual’s major life activities.”
A “physical or mental impairment” includes physical disorders or
conditions, disease, disfigurement, amputation affecting a vital body
system, psychological disorders, mental retardation, mental illness, and
learning disabilities. One of the elements that constitute a “major life
activity” is work.
The ADA requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations for
disabled workers. While there is not a hard and fast definition for
“reasonable accommodations,” it seems probable that NET violated this when
it refused to respond to Cronan’s request to be transferred because of the
actions of co-workers.
It was reasonable for NET management to expect an explanation for
Cronan’s numerous absences related to illness. Once Cronan revealed his
situation, did NET management behave unethically by revealing his illness
to other employees?
Did NET behave ethically by its subsequent actions?
Applying ethical theory to the Cronan case reveals many interesting
vantage points from which to make ethical judgments. Differing theories
offer varying arguments both for and against NET’s behavior.
Under Utilitarianism, the ethical decision is that which produces the
most utility when compared to any other alternative. The initial task
then, is to define utility as it pertains to a particular set of
If utility is defined in the Cronan case as employee harmony and
happiness, then it might be argued that NET behavior was, in fact, ethical.
Given the amount of fear and tension Cronan’s illness inflicted upon the
employee population, his returning to the workplace put enormous stress on
his co-workers, thereby lowering the amount of harmony and happiness
experienced by the majority of workers.Under these conditions, the most
ethical choice would be to terminate Cronan’s employment with disability
benefits maintaining harmony and happiness among the greater amount of
employees while lessoning the amount of impact upon Cronan. The increased
utility for the many would outweigh the discord of the one.
The same answer would be produced if utility were defined as the amount of
goods and services produced at the lowest price since employee happiness
has a direct correlation to productivity. The productivity of the company
was surely suffering during this period of fear and frustration thus
driving up costs. This situation, the greatest amount of utility would
again be achieved by returning the most employees to high productivity
using the most expeditious means.
Conversely, NETS release of Cronan’s medical information to the
general employees would yield a single answer using either utility
If utility is defined as happiness and harmony, then NET could have
preserved the maximum utility by keeping Cronan’s situation confidential
and continuing to employ Cronan when he was physically able to work. This
again correlates to increased production and would yield the same result if
utility were defined using productivity as a standard.
One of the major criticisms of Utility theory is that it fails when
it is applied to situations involving social justice. In order to arrive
at a different answer under Utilitarian thought, utility would need to be
defined using all persons possibly affected by discriminatory behavior like
that perpetrated by NET.
In Kantian theory, “an action is morally right for a person in a
certain situation if, and only if, the person’s reason for carrying out the
actions is a reason that he or she would be willing to have every person
act on, in a similar way.” Simplified, due unto to others, as you would
have them do unto you.
Examining the privacy issue one could assume that any member of NET’s
management would not want his or her personal information released to the
general employee population. Kantian philosophy would indicate that it is
therefore unethical for management to release private information.
What if management felt the information concerned the health of other
It could still be maintained that management placed in Cronan’s
situation would not wish private information divulged.
When Kantian theory is applied to NET’s subsequent actions and
behavior the answers derived are not as clear.
NET’s inactions to provide reasonable considerations for Cronan’s
illness would seem unethical because if placed in a similar situation, a
reasonable person would wish to be similarly accommodated. However, this
does not take into consideration the safety of fellow workers.
Little was known about AIDS and how it was spread during the Cronan
case. Medical experts were not able to say with certainty that HIV could
not spread through some forms of casual contact. This being the case, it
is reasonable to assume many individuals would feel it was correct to
isolate infected individuals even if they themselves were to become the
This leads to a criticism of Kantian theory. The lack of clear
resolution when the rights of differing parties clash. The theory does not
provide clear guidance as to the ranking of rights. Does one’s right to
freedom and dignity outweigh another’s rights to live free from fear of
disease and death?
Under strict Kantian interpretation, if the perpetrators of an act
would wish it to be universalized, then the act is ethical. Under this
guideline, an act’s ethical status depends solely upon the actor and not