Employment Law Daily EEOC claims of illegal medical exam, wrongful discharge revived for employee with mobility issues
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Monday, February 4, 2019

EEOC claims of illegal medical exam, wrongful discharge revived for employee with mobility issues

By Ronald Miller, J.D.

The EEOC’s claims were inappropriately dismissed on summary judgment because reasonable jury could conclude that the employer lacked a reasonable belief, at the time it required the employee to take a medical exam, that she would posed a direct threat to her own safety.

A reasonable jury could conclude that when an employer required a long-term employee with a disability to take a medical fitness-for-duty exam, it lacked a reasonable belief, based on objective evidence, that her medical condition had left her unable to navigate to and within its various campuses without imposing a direct threat to her own safety, the Fourth Circuit held. Therefore, summary judgment in favor of the employer was granted in error. Summary judgment in the employer’s favor on the wrongful discharge claim brought by the EEOC was also inappropriate, as it was uncertain that navigating to and within the employer’s campuses was essential to the employee’s job. The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court and remanded the matter for further proceedings (EEOC v. McLeod Health, Inc., January 31, 2019, Floyd, F.).

Long-term employee with a disability. For 28 years, the employee worked for the employer, a company that operates various hospitals and healthcare facilities. She was, in essence, the editor of the employer’s internal employee newsletter. One of her responsibilities was to develop content for the newsletter by interviewing other employees and writing about company events. To that end, she typically traveled among the employer’s various campuses, spread throughout an area of roughly 100 miles.

Mobility struggles. The employee was born with a physical disability known as “postaxial hypoplasia of the lower extremity.” She lacks certain bones in her legs, feet and right hand. As a result of her disability, she struggles with mobility. Her condition causes her to “fall sometimes” and “stumble sometimes.” Additionally, her condition causes her to “get . . . tired more easily” and makes it difficult for her to sit or stand “in one position for too long.”

Over the course of several months, the employee’s manager repeatedly expressed concerns about her performance to human resources, including missing deadlines, arriving late to work, and displaying a less-than-enthusiastic attitude about the employer’s internal messaging. The manager raised the possibility that the employee’s performance issues were due to problems with her health.

Fitness-for-duty exam. In 2012, the employee fell three times in a four-month span. The first and third falls occurred outside of work and caused minor injuries. The second fall occurred at work when she tripped over a rug and experienced no significant harm. She missed no time at work. The manager reported the third fall to HR. She was advised to bring her concerns to the employer’s occupational health department. Based on the manager’s report, the employee’s job description and its own records of the employee’s health issues, occupational health determined that the employee undergo a fitness-for-duty medical exam. During the exam, the employee gave her medical history and recounted the circumstances of her recent falls. It was determined that the employee needed further testing.

Restrictions and accommodation requests. Her manager placed the employee on paid administrative leave pending the results of her functional capacity exam. The exam concluded that the employee was a “[h]igh fall risk in 75% of all work related task[s].” It was recommended that the employee, among other things, (1) be restricted to traveling no more than 10 miles from her main office; (2) use a motorized scooter; and (3) be provided a parking space in an area without a curb.

The employee, in turn, submitted a request for accommodations, including: (1) a parking spot in an area without a curb; (2) help with selecting a scooter; (3) a new desk chair with adjustable height; and (4) limitations on walking and standing “as much as possible.” The employee did not think that she needed any accommodations to continue doing her job, but thought that she was required to submit an accommodation form.

Disability discrimination. The employee was informed that she could not return to her job because her proposed accommodations would prevent her from traveling to the company’s various campuses to collect stories. Accordingly, the employer placed her on unpaid medical leave. After the employee had been on medical leave for six months, her employment was terminated. She filed a complaint with the EEOC, which brought this action alleging the employer violated the ADA by requiring the employee to undergo a medical exam despite a lack of objective evidence that such an exam was necessary and discharging her on the basis of her disability. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer on both claims.

Illegal exam claim. On appeal, the threshold question was whether navigating to and within the employer’s campuses was an essential function of the employee’s job. According to the district court, the EEOC did not produce enough evidence for a reasonable juror to come down on its side. The appeals court disagreed. While there was no doubt evidence in the record supporting the employer’s position, the record also contained evidence supporting the EEOC’s position. Specifically, the employee was able to conduct interviews and collect other forms of content over the phone.

At this stage, the court was only to determine whether the EEOC had produced more than “a mere scintilla of evidence” in support of its position that navigating to and within the employee’s campuses was not an essential job function. Accordingly, the question was one for the jury.

Wrongful discharge claim. To bring a wrongful discharge claim under the ADA, “a plaintiff must prove (1) that she has a disability, (2) that she is a ‘qualified individual’ for the employment in question, and (3) that [her employer] discharged her (or took other adverse employment action) because of her disability.” Whether the employee was a qualified individual when she was removed from her position was the crux of the issue on appeal.

In essence, the district court reasoned that the EEOC could not prove that the employee was qualified for her job at the time she was fired because it could not show she was qualified to carry on her work with the company’s internal newsletter. It had found that navigating to and within the employer’s various campuses was an essential function of the job, and her medical exam indicated that no reasonable accommodation would permit her to perform that function without posing a direct threat to her own safety. However, the appeals court observed that it was not certain that navigating to and within the employer’s campuses was essential to her job. By the same token, it was not certain that the employee’s medical exam was lawful. Accordingly, the employer should not have been awarded summary judgment on the EEOC’s wrongful discharge claim.

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