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How to make medical inquiries the legally safe way

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in Centerpiece,Employment Law,Human Resources

by Mindy Chapman, Esq.

businessman walking on tightrope

 

Complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is like walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls, only without a tether. If you fall off, you end up getting whisked away by lawsuits and drowning in litigation. That’s especially true when it comes to the ADA’s rules on medical inquiries about employees.

On the one hand, you need some information to make sure the em­­ployee is qualified for coverage under the ADA. On the other hand, being too inquisitive with employees can land you in court.

So where’s the balance?

Case in Point: Wade Pamon, a campus police officer at the University of Illinois, suffered a stroke while off duty, leaving him unable to walk or take care of himself. A few years later, he told the ­university he was improved enough to return.

The school first required Pamon to obtain a medical clearance from his neurologist, which he did. Then it required Pamon to undergo a ­functional capacity exam (FCE) to prove his fitness for work. But Pamon blew off three FCE appointments, so the university never called him back for work.

Pamon sued under the ADA, claiming the FCE request was a violation of his ADA rights because it made an impermissible medical inquiry into his disability. After all, Pamon claimed, his neurologist had already provided a medical release.

The university argued that it had the legal right to better understand Pamon’s medical condition as it related to his job-specific duties.

The court sided with the university, saying the ADA permits an employer to inquire into the nature and severity of an employee’s disability if the inquiry is shown to be “job-related and consistent with business necessity.” (Pamon v. Bd. of Ts. Of Univ. of Ill., 7th Cir.)

3 lessons learned … without going to court

1. Make all medical inquiries job-related. The court found the inquiry to be job-related because Pamon’s stroke-related condition was serious. He had taken extensive disability leave to ad­­dress his condition and his desired job required strenuous physical activity.

2. Medical clearances may be too general. The court said the neurologist’s note was just a general work clearance.

3. Functional capacity exams are more specific to job duties. In this case, the court noted, “The FCE requirement was reasonable because the exam would help the employer to make an individualized assessment of Pamon’s condition and his ability to do the job.”

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Mindy Chapman is an attorney and  president of Mindy Chapman & Associates LLC. She is a master trainer, keynote speaker and co-author of the ABA book, Case Dismissed! Taking Your Harassment Prevention Training to Trial. Sign up to receive her blog postings at Case in Point

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