Multiple psych exams were reasonable, supported by objective evidence
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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Multiple psych exams were reasonable, supported by objective evidence

By Joy P. Waltemath, J.D.

Although the first four out of five mental health examinations of an office administrator for the Illinois Department of Transportation found her to be fit for duty (several of the exams, however, did suggest she might have a personality disorder), the Seventh Circuit was not at all convinced that her employer had violated the ADA by forcing her to undergo any medical exams that were not job-related or consistent with business necessity. Her claims were ultimately reduced to a challenge to only the last two exams, which the appeals court agreed were supported by objective evidence—multiple coworker complaints that she was rude, angry, abrasive, aggressive, and threatening; she had mood swings; she mumbled incoherently to herself; she kept detailed logs of coworkers’ conversations and interactions; and they feared she might become physically violent. Summary judgment to the IDOT was affirmed in an unpublished opinion (Painter v. Illinois Department of Transportation, December 6, 2017, per curiam).

Multiple complaints, multiple exams. The office administrator began working for IDOT in the traffic safety division in 2010. After many coworker complaints, she was placed on administrative leave and sent for a medical exam with an occupational medicine specialist, who found her fit for duty but recommended a psychological evaluation (which occurred but no report was issued; it appears he may have examined her twice). He suggested she might be bipolar. IDOT allowed her to return to work as an office administrator in a different division.

Unfit for duty. In her new division, the employee began keeping the detailed log of coworker behavior and again coworkers and supervisors complained; she was again placed on administrative leave and required to submit to a psychiatric evaluation. Although statements from her coworkers and supervisors caused him to suspect she might suffer from a personality disorder, the psychiatrist concluded that she was fit for duty. After she returned to work, the complaints began again; eventually, after an incident with her union rep, which he and others interpreted as threatening, she was again placed on administrative leave and again examined by the psychiatrist. This time the psychiatrist declared the office administrator unfit for duty because of her “paranoid thinking and the highly disruptive behavior which results from her paranoia.”

Claiming that the IDOT had violated the ADA by forcing her to attend unnecessary medical examinations, the employee sued. As the case progressed, she narrowed her ADA claim to exclude all but the two examinations by the psychiatrist. Entering summary judgment for the IDOT, the district court reasoned that the only conclusion a jury reasonably could draw was that the medical examinations were “job-related and consistent with business necessity.” And the Seventh Circuit agreed.

First exam by psychiatrist. According to the EEOC, a medical examination is job related and consistent with business necessity if the employer has a reasonable belief based on objective evidence that a medical condition will impair an employee’s ability to perform essential job functions or that the employee will pose a threat due to a medical condition. It isn’t enough that an employee’s behavior is annoying or inefficient. As to the psychiatrist’s first exam, the appeals court agreed that it was job related and consistent with business necessity. The exam was precipitated by coworker complaints similar to those resulting in earlier exams: that the office administrator “snapped and screamed at them, gave blank stares and intimidating looks, ranted, constantly mumbled to herself, repeatedly banged drawers in her office;” and that she “glared and growled at them; was rude, angry, abrasive, aggressive, and threatening; and had mood swings.” Her supervisors had been told that coworkers feared she might become physically violent. Her paranoia was evident from her extensive writing about coworkers in her log, often making at least one entry per hour.

Second exam by psychiatrist. As for the second psychiatric exam, it too was job related and consistent with business necessity, occurring after the employee was reprimanded for unprofessionally interacting with her coworkers. The psychiatrist reviewed an additional 160 pages of documentation, “including supervisor notes, discipline directives, email communications, and statements from other employees, which suggested the employee had continued engaging in argumentative, confrontational, insubordinate, and disruptive behavior. Emails the employee sent directly to the psychiatrist strongly suggested that she suffered from a personality disorder, and the court also cited the email to the union rep, which was perceived as threatening and led to police involvement. “Inquiries—even multiple inquiries—concerning a worker’s psychiatric health may be permissible if they reflect concern for the safety of other employees and the public at large,” concluded the appeals court, finding the second psychiatric exam was again based on the IDOT’s reasonable concern for the safety of its employees.

Decision-maker identification. After addressing several “insubstantial” evidentiary claims, the court considered the employee’s final argument—that the IDOT could not escape a trial without evidence identifying the decision-maker behind each challenged medical examination. Although she cited Kroll v. White Lake Ambulance Authority, that Sixth Circuit opinion did not support her stance. Rather, the Kroll court said that employers cannot satisfy the “business necessity” requirement with general assertions that a medical examination is “convenient or expedient,” but “[r]ather, the individual who decides to require a medical examination must have a reasonable belief based on objective evidence that the employee’s behavior threatens a vital function of the business.” This statement did not define a rule of law that a single decision-maker must be readily identifiable, reasoned the Seventh Circuit, especially when, as here, multiple people participated in deciding whether to compel the examination.

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