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Detail concerns before ordering fitness exams

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in Human Resources

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

Under EEOC guidelines, employers can demand an exam if they can prove 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:
Tonya Coffman worked as a firefighter. Her department experienced a spate of firefighter suicides, and fellow firefighters began to notice that Coffman was becoming withdrawn and defensive. She would sit by herself, avoid others and bristled at any work-related criticism. They reported this to managers, who asked Coffman to undergo a psychological evaluation.

The examiner didn’t find any psychological disorders, but recommended short-term 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 nature and stress of the job and the recent suicides, and concluded the department had an objective and 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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