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Social service agency letter breach leads to bullying

12 February 2019

A social service agency that caused unnecessary delays in resolving a complaint left a woman feeling vulnerable and unimportant.

The woman complained to the office of the Privacy Commission about the agency after it posted a letter to her work address containing confidential information about her and her family. The woman’s employer had a policy to open any mail it received addressed to its employees. After opening the letter, the employer shared the contents with her colleagues and they used it to bully the woman.

The Office says the social service agency knew about the employer’s policy of opening employee letters because it had made this mistake already; sending sensitive information about the same woman to the same address several years earlier.

The Office found that the agency had breached principles 8 and 11 of the Privacy Act in interfering with the woman’s privacy. It asked the agency to make a settlement offer within 10 working days.

Three weeks later, the agency responded saying it accepted the finding. It planned to contact the woman within a week to arrange a time to make a formal apology.

But after a further six weeks the agency still had not contacted her.

In a conference with the Commission, the agency questioned its role in causing harm to the complainant. It argued that the Office had accepted the complainant’s word “with no apparent verification.”

Evidence of harm

“We explained that section 66 of the Privacy Act sets out the threshold for harm. The Privacy Commissioner determines whether the harm that has occurred meets that threshold,” the Office’s decision notes.

“The woman had told us that the incident had an ongoing impact on her life. Her manager and colleagues bullied her about the content of the letters. This caused her stress and undermined her ability to do her job.”

The Office further explained that the stress caused ongoing medical issues, which lead to financial pressure, and that she was afraid of losing her job because of the time she had to take off work.

“Colleagues used the incorrectly addressed letter to bully the complainant. We saw the agency sending the letter to the wrong address as a contributing cause of the complaint's harm,” the decision says.

However, the agency wanted to see further evidence of the woman’s harm and were not willing to discuss any financial settlement.

Resolution

After receiving answers for the woman and seeing medical evidence of her harm, the agency offered an apology and financial compensation of $6,000.

Altogether it had taken one year from the initial complaint to resolution and the Office says the victim wasn't satisfied with the amount offered but accepted it.

Last updated on the 12th February 2019