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Document your concern about employee before ordering a fitness-for-duty exam

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The ADA prohibits employers from demanding fitness-for-duty exams unless the exams are “job related and consistent with business necessity.”

Employers can demand an exam if they have a reasonable belief—based on objective evidence—that an employee’s medical condition will:

  • Impair his or her ability to perform essential job functions, or
  • Pose a safety threat to the employee, other members of the workforce or the general public.

If you believe either is the case, make sure you document your objective and reasonable beliefs before demanding the exam. That’s especially true for psychological exams. They must be based on concern for the safety of the employee, co-workers or the public.

Recent case: Fellow firefighters noticed that Tonya Coffman was becoming more withdrawn and defensive. She’d sit by herself, avoid others and bristle at any work-related criticism. The department had seen a spate of firefighter suicides lately, so the co-workers reported her behavior to managers. Coffman was asked to undergo a psychological evaluation.

The examiner didn’t find any psychological disorders, but recommended counseling. Coffman agreed and returned to work after several sessions. Then she filed a lawsuit alleging that requiring her to take the exam violated the ADA.

The court disagreed, based on the danger a depressed or suicidal firefighter might pose to the public or her fellow firefighters. It considered the stress of the job and recent suicides, and concluded the department had a reasonable belief that Coffman might be depressed and a danger to herself or others. It dismissed the lawsuit. (Coffman v. Indianapolis Fire Department, No. 08-1646, 7th Cir., 2009)

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