Larry Jackson's doctor cleared him to return to work without restrictions following his triple bypass surgery. His employer, DBM Technologies, initially assigned him to a less physically demanding job preparing shipments. But he was chastised twice during the first week for working too slowly.
The plant manager wanted him to operate a plastic parts press, but Jackson said he wasn't physically ready. Jackson was given a verbal warning for poor job performance and told to bring a note from his physician stating that he wasn't able to operate the press and confirming any medical limitations.
The doctor restricted Jackson from lifting more than 20 pounds, but the press didn't require that much lifting. When Jackson again refused to operate the press, the company fired him.
Jackson took his complaint to an arbitrator, who determined that the company was too hasty in the firing without further inquiry into the reasonableness of his refusal to operate the press. A federal appeals court upheld that decision. (DBM Technologies Inc. v. Local 277, United Food & Commercial Workers International Union, No. 00-5449, 6th Cir., 2001)
While the collective bargaining agreement gave DBM the ability to rely on a doctor's statement when considering whether to allow an employee to return to work, the express language in the agreement did not give DBM the right to rely solely on the doctor's note, the court said.
Advice: Always investigate the reasonableness of an employee's refusal to work based on a medical condition. You can't simply rely on the doctor's note to back up your decision. In this case, DBM could have requested that the employee provide additional information about his condition or that he visit a physician selected by the company.