You aren’t allowed to delve into an employee’s medical history or disabilities when the employee wants to keep the information private—unless you can show a clear job-related reason for doing so.
To qualify as job-related, your inquiry must be narrowly tailored to assess whether the employee is capable of performing the essential functions of the job. As this case shows, broad questions often run afoul of the law.
Recent case: FBI special agent James Scott experienced a series of minor injuries and took time off to recover. He needed to take a fitness-for-duty exam to return.
The examiner became concerned about Scott’s mental state and began to ask a series of questions about his psychiatric health. He asked Scott if he ever had a learning disability, was undergoing mental health counseling, had undergone any medical treatment “within the past years” or was taking prescription or other drugs. Scott refused to answer the questions and was eventually terminated.
Scott sued, alleging the questions violated the ADA because they were designed to reveal disabilities and weren’t job-related.
The court agreed that the questions were overly broad and granted summary judgment to Scott, saying the medical questions could force the employee to reveal even inconsequential problems.
The court said inquiries would have to be “no broader or more intrusive than necessary” to ensure that Scott could safely do his job. (Scott v. Napolitano, No. 08-CV-0735, SD CA, 2010)
Final note: The court did say Scott’s employer could have required a mental exam to see if Scott were mentally fit to do his job. That exam would have to be narrowly tailored to assess whether he could perform the essential functions of the special-agent job. Questions concerning medical issues unrelated to the job would not be allowed.