Medical Inquiries: How to Walk the ADA Tightrope

ADA tightropeComplying 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 by 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 can land you in court. Where’s the balance?

In this case, the employers was given the green light to request a doctor’s opinion on the nature and severity of the disability because the inquiry helped evaluate the employee’s ability to do the job …

Case in Point: Wade Pamon worked as a campus police officer for the University of Illinois Chicago for 13 years. While off duty in 2001, he suffered a stroke, leaving him unable to walk or take care of himself. By 2004, he could lift weights and use a treadmill. In 2005, Pamon informed the university that he wanted to return to his job.

The school first required Pamon to obtain a medical clearance from his neurologist, which he did. Then they required Pamon to undergo a functional capacity exam (FCE) to prove his fitness for work. After Pamon blew off three FCE appointments, the university never called him back for work nor offered him any alternative jobs.

Pamon sued under the ADA, claiming that the FCE was a requirement only for those that were injured on the job and, thus, the university was violating his ADA rights by making an impermissible medical inquiry into the nature of his disability. After all, Pamon claimed, his neurologist had already provided a medical release to return to work.

The university argued that it had the legal right to better understand Pamon’s medical condition as it related to his job-specific duties and that it was reasonable to request him to take a FCE.

What happened next? 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., 5/24/12)

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 noted that the neurologist note informing the employer that Pamon could return to work was 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.”