by Lana L. Rupprecht, Esq. - AVP Product Compliance
November 15, 2023
Many employers do not know what medical information they are entitled to request under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and once they get such information, many employers do not know how to maintain it.
But we can help. Here is a summary which is based upon the following EEOC Guidance:
The ADA prohibits disability discrimination. Employers may not make medical inquiries of applicants and employees. Employers may not ask current employees if they have a disability or inquire into the nature or severity of the disability unless doing so is job-related and consistent with business necessity.
A disability-related inquiry of an employee may be job-related and consistent with business necessity when an employer reasonably believes, based upon objective evidence, that either: the employee's ability to perform essential job functions will be impaired by a medical condition, or the employee will pose a direct threat because of the medical condition.
What about when an employee makes an accommodation request under the ADA? Generally, employers may request reasonable documentation in such instances unless:
- both the disability and the need for reasonable accommodation are obvious, or
- the employee has already provided the employer with sufficient information to substantiate a disability and the need for an accommodation
Finally, information employers collect from employees through the accommodation process or when making inquiries into the ability of an employee to perform job-related functions must be collected and maintained separately.
But how does that work in real life? Check out these illustrative cases.
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Doe v. Ford Motor Credit Company (M.D. Tenn. 2008)
Doe was a full-time employee who needed to miss work each week to participate in a medical study associated with his HIV diagnosis. As a result, Doe requested a schedule accommodation (working 4 extended hour days rather than a regular 5-day schedule) stating he needed this schedule due to his medical condition; he did not get into further specifics. A manager, Danny Dunson, asked for Doe's specific diagnosis. Doe did not want to tell Dunson the diagnosis, but the manager stated, "In order for me to accommodate your schedule, I need to know what is going on." Doe then told him about his HIV diagnosis. Dunson then told Doe's direct supervisor about the HIV diagnosis and the direct supervisor told Doe's co-workers. The EEOC brought a lawsuit on Doe's behalf alleging, among other things, ADA violations.
The court permitted the ADA claims to go to trial and found that the manager's actions of asking about Doe's medical condition could be considered an illegal medical inquiry under the ADA. Further, the court found that although an employer could conduct a voluntary medical examination or make inquiries into the ability of an employee to perform job-related functions, such information must be kept confidential as required by the ADA.
Rodriguez v. Walt Disney Parks and Resorts U.S., Inc. (C.D. CA 2018)
Andrew Rodriguez was a parade support driver for Disney Parks and Resorts. He took a medical leave of absence from work and upon his return, he was asked the following four questions:
- What conditions were you out of work for?
- What medication(s) are you currently taking related to this absence?
- Are you returning to work from an absence resulting from a work-related injury or illness?
- Will you be able to return to work and perform your regular job?
Rodriquez declined to answer these questions but offered a doctor's note which stated he had no medical restrictions. Disney did not accept it, kept Rodriguez out on leave, and eventually terminated Rodriguez's employment.
Rodriguez brought a lawsuit claiming these questions were impermissible inquiries into his medical history in violation of the ADA and state law.
Disney argued that Rodriguez worked in a safety-sensitive position, and therefore, Disney asserted that the four questions were tailored to be job-related to his position as a parade support driver. Disney stated the goal behind the questions was to understand whether the underlying medical condition that caused the need for the leave could put Rodriguez "at risk of becoming suddenly and relatively unpredictably incapacitated in the future and/or whether the medical condition or prescription drugs could impair his reaction time or the ability to safely perform the functions of the job."
The court disagreed with Disney finding that the four questions "were not appropriately narrowly tailored to its asserted business necessity and job-related purpose."
Burns v. Nielsen, Secretary, U.S. Department of Homeland Security (W.D. Tex. 2020)
Joseph Burns, an employee of the US Customs and Border Protection experienced chronic migraine headaches. Burns' employer made inquiries to his physician asking about the impact his condition had on his life activities. His employer also asked for his physician to provide a "description of [Burns'] current medical status and use of potentially sedating medications" and to provide "an opinion as to whether his medical conditions and use of medications impeded his ability to engage in arduous physical activities, including but not limited to, climbing towers, crouching, and crawling, and his ability to respond to off-hours emergencies."
Burns' employer claimed these inquiries were job related and consistent with business necessity due to the nature of Burns' position and related safety concerns. The court disagreed and found that such concerns were based upon generalized assumptions rather than the facts. For one, Burns had a clean safety record, and the safety concerns were third hand information. As a result, the court upheld the jury's findings on liability in favor of Burns' improper medical inquiry claim.
Tips for Employers
How should an employer learn from these cases? Consider the following:
- If an employee asks for a workplace accommodation, do not ask for a complete medical file or medical diagnosis in response. In Ford Motor, the manager should have focused on the employee's ability to perform job related functions.
- Also, if you already have medical information from that employee do not ask for duplicative information. In Rodriguez, the employee provided a doctor's note, but Disney insisted on using its own form questions and information.
- Follow the interactive process, which should help determine what medical information, if any, is required to decide whether an accommodation is appropriate.
- Employers are only entitled to request limited medical information that supports an accommodation request if it is job related and consistent with business necessity — two points that should be well defined and documented.
- Consider whether there is a more tailored option to obtain the information needed. In the Rodriguez case, for example, the court found that Disney previously sent a job description to the doctor and asked if the employee had any job restrictions, so the employee shouldn't have been required to also answer the four questions.
- Do not make assumptions. In Burns, the court found that the employer's motivations for making medical inquiries were "subjective" and not based upon actual documented facts.
- Always confer with an attorney when dealing with these kinds of issues.
Check out the following resources on this topic:
- Enforcement Guidance on Disability-Related Inquiries and Medical Examinations of Employees under the ADA | U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (eeoc.gov)
- Enforcement Guidance on Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship under the ADA | U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (eeoc.gov)
- Questions and Answers: Enforcement Guidance on Disability Related Inquiries and Medical Examinations Under the Americans with Disabilities Act | U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (eeoc.gov)
- Disability-Related Questions, Medical Exams, and Confidentiality | U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (eeoc.gov)
- EEOC Disability-Related Resources | U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
- Requests For Medical Documentation and the ADA (askjan.org)
Reliance Matrix Can Help!
Need help in ADA administration? Reliance Matrix offers employers leave administration, including family and medical leave solutions and accommodation services such as ADA and PWFA. For more information, contact your Reliance Matrix account manager or send us a message to [email protected].
Through its insurance and administrative services entities, Reliance Matrix offers integrated leave management services involving the FMLA, state-mandated paid family and medical leave and accommodation solutions. Product features and availability may vary by state. For more information, please contact your Reliance Matrix account manager, or reach us at [email protected].