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Fitness-For-Duty Exams: When Can You Require Them For Emotional Issues (and for At-Home Workers)?

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in Case In Point

case in pointEmployers typically require workers to undergo fitness for duty exams (FFDEs) when employees return after an injury. But can you also require an FFDE for employees who have shown mental instability? And can you demand an FFDE from employees who work at home? A court recent ruling last week in favor of Coca-Cola says you can if safety issues are the real thing ...

Case in Point: Franklin Owusu-Ansah worked for Coke as a quality-assurance specialist responsible for monitoring the performance of frontline call center associates. He mostly worked from his Georgia home, but sometimes came into the call center for meetings.

During one such meeting with his manager, he complained that he'd been discriminated for years because he was from Ghana. During that meeting, he became agitated and banged his hands on the table and stated, “someone was going to pay for this.”

Owusu-Ansah refused to discuss his complaint with Coke's HR people. But he agreed to meet with an independent consulting psychologist who specialized in threat assessments. The psychologist wanted Owusu-Ansah to talk with a specialist but he refused. At that point, the pscychologist recommended Owusu-Ansah be placed on paid administrative leave pending an FFDE “to rule out the possibility of a mental condition that could interfere with his ability to successfully and safely carry out his job duties.”

Owusu-Ansah passed the FFDE. He then turned around and sued Coke under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), claiming the company unlawfully forced him to submit to the FFDE because the ADA says employers may not “require a medical examination and shall not make inquiries of an employee as to whether such employee is an individual with a disability or as to the nature or severity of the disability.”

The ruling: A lower court sided with Coke, saying the ADA medical-test rules also include an exception “for medical inquiries and exams that are shown to be job-related and consistent with business necessity.” The court found that Owusu-Ansah’s situation fell under that exception. 

On appeal, Coke won again. The court ruled that Coke was justified in requiring Owusu-Ansah to undergo an FFDE. The court observed, “An employee’s ability to handle the reasonable and necessary stresses of his position and to work reasonably well with others are essential functions of any job.” (Owusu-Ansah v. Coca-Cola Co., 11th Cir., 5/8/13).

3 Lessons Learned … Without Going To Court

1. Know the ADA “medical inquiry exception.” Even the court, however, reminded employers that employees “don’t have to prove they are disabled under the ADA to claim protections that prohibit employers from making unlawful medical inquiries.”

2. FFDEs apply to remote workforces. The court noted “safety” issues justify FFDEs, but employers must show the issue is job-related and a business necessity. Note it’s an “and,” not an “or.”  You need to show both.

3. Don’t forget to investigate underlying claims. In this case, the employee claimed discrimination and harassment. Don’t forget to take prompt effective action to investigate all claims. You don’t need another lawsuit for failing to investigate.

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