- An employee required to undergo medical exams after a manager expressed concern about her ability to travel may have her Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) claims heard by a jury, a federal appeals court determined in EEOC v. McLeod Health Inc. (No. 17-2335 (4th Cir. Jan. 31, 2019)).
- Cecilia Whitten worked for a South Carolina healthcare facility operator. She served as the editor of McLeod Health's employee newsletter and had a disability that affected her stability. After she fell several times, a manager questioned her ability to safely navigate the company's five campuses to obtain content for the newsletter. The employer required her to undergo fitness-for-duty exams and one healthcare provider a travel restriction. The employer said she could not perform her job with such a limitation, placed her on unpaid leave and eventually fired her.
- The U.S Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued on Whitten's behalf and a district court granted the employer summary judgment on both her illegal medical exam and wrongful discharge claims. EEOC appealed and the 4th Circuit reversed, finding that a jury should decide whether travel was an essential function of her job and whether she posed a direct threat to herself on the job.
The ADA prohibits covered employers from requiring an employee to undergo a medical exam "unless such examination is shown to be job-related and consistent with business necessity."
The McLeod court cited EEOC's guidelines, which make clear that for an employer-ordered medical exam to be job-related and consistent with business necessity, the employer must reasonably believe, based on objective evidence, that either (a) the employee's ability to perform an essential job function is impaired by a medical condition or (b) the employee can perform all of essential functions of the job, but because of his or medical condition, doing so will pose a direct threat. A direct threat, the court said, is a significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the individual or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation.
In this instance, Whitten's job description did not mention navigating to and from company events or conducting in-person interviews. Additionally, Whitten testified that although she collected better content by attending company events and conducting in-person interviews, she did not think that either was a requirement of her job. Therefore, the court said, McLeod was not entitled to summary judgment on the illegal exam claim.
The court also said that a reasonable jury could conclude that when McLeod required Whitten to take a medical exam, the company lacked a reasonable belief — based on objective medical evidence — that Whitten's medical condition left her unable to navigate to and within the company's campuses without posing a direct threat to her own safety.