Employers aren’t allowed to delve into an employee’s disabilities or medical history when that employee wants to keep the information private—unless the employer can show a job-related reason for doing so.
To qualify, the inquiry must be narrowly tailored to assess whether the employee is capable of performing the essential functions of his job. Broad questions often run afoul of the law.
Recent case: The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Protective Service hired James Scott as a uniformed protective officer. He was subsequently promoted to special agent and eventually transferred to the FBI.
Scott experienced a series of minor injuries and took time off to recover. At one point, a supervisor informed him that he would need to take a fitness-for-duty exam. When Scott reported for the test, the examiner soon became concerned about Scott’s mental state. The examiner feared Scott believed that officials within the Federal Protective Service were conspiring to prevent him from returning to service.
Scott was then asked a series of questions about his past and present psychiatric health, including whether 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. He 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 were not job-related.
The court agreed that the questions were overly broad. For example, the court said the questions about medical treatment could force an employee to reveal even inconsequential problems such as a bout of eczema. The questions about mental health could have forced revelations about childhood phobias.
The court went on to say that the inquiries would have to be “no broader or more intrusive than necessary” to ensure that Scott could safely do his job.
The court granted summary judgment to Scott without a trial, finding the employer had violated the law. (Scott v. Napolitano, No. 08-CV-0735, SD CA, 2010)