Family’s Lawsuit Alleging Genetic Discrimination Could Serve As Landmark Civil Rights Case


The family of a teenage boy is alleging he has become the victim of a relatively new form of unfair treatment: genetic discrimination.

Colman Chadam was excluded from school while he was in sixth grade because he possessed the genetic markers for cystic fibrosis, although he did not have the lung condition, Wired reported.

Two siblings at the middle school Colman attended in Palo Alto, California, had the inherited disease, and after a request from their parents, the school decided in 2012 to exclude Colman. Children with the disease should not be near each other because they can spread infections.

The Chadam family filed a genetic discrimination claim in district court, but this was thrown out in 2013. They responded by launching an appeal to the federal 9th Circuit Court in January, which received a favorable supporting brief from the federal departments of Justice and Education.

In 2008, Congress adopted the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act to prevent treatment like that alleged by Colman’s family. When GINA was passed in 2008, the House of Representatives voted 414-1 in favor, while the Senate backed the measure unanimously, Time reported.

The first high-profile claim under GINA came in 2010, when Pamela Fink, an employee of an energy company in Connecticut, alleged she had been fired because she had genes linked to higher rates of cancer.

But GINA applies only to the areas of employment and health insurance. The Chaddams are therefore basing their suit on the Americans with Disabilities Act. It is the first time that the issue of genetic discrimination will be considered by a court under this law.

“This case is an useful reminder about the limitations of the federal statute,” lawyer Jennifer Wagner told Wired.

The only other time the ADA has been raised in connection with genetic discrimination was in 2001, when workers at Burlington Northern Santa Fe LLC freight railroad alleged their employer was discriminating against them by searching for genetic indicators of carpal tunnel syndrome. That case was settled out of court.

According to a 2012 report by the Equal Opportunities Employment Commission, genetic discrimination claims rose by 20 percent in the 2011 fiscal year, reaching 245.

With genetic testing becoming more widely available, the outcome of Colman’s case could set an important precedent for civil rights in the future.

Sources: Wired, Time / Photo credit: Caroline Davis2010/Flickr

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