- An employer was entitled to rely on a doctor's assertion that an employee was unable to work, even with accommodations, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held (McAllister v. Innovation Ventures LLC dba Living Essential, No. 20-1779 (7th Cir., Dec. 30, 2020)).
- The employer, the company that makes 5-hour Energy, granted an employee Family and Medical Leave Act leave after a car accident. When that leave expired, her doctor refused to clear her for work; she asked the employer to allow her to return anyway and it declined. After several months, fired her.
- She sued, alleging the company failed to accommodate her disability, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The appeals court affirmed a lower court’s decision that she was qualified for the law's protections because she couldn't work, either with or without an accommodation. Her contention that she could work was directly contradicted by her doctor’s orders, the court said, and absent evidence to the contrary, a doctor’s view that an employee cannot return to work in any position means an employee cannot establish that she is a qualified individual with a disability under the ADA.
Courts often agree that employers can rely on doctor's notes for ADA purposes, even when the employee in question contradicts the medical professional's assessment.
In 2018, the 6th Circuit held that an employer's decision to bar an employee from returning to work after a stroke didn't amount to disability discrimination because it relied on the opinions of two doctors (Stanley v. BP Products North America, Inc. aka BP-Husky Refining, LLC., No. 18-3303 (6th Cir., Dec. 4, 2018)). Such a conclusion works the other way, too: last year, the 9th Circuit held that an employer was entitled to require an employee to return to work after doctors had cleared him to do so. The employer was not required to rely on the workers self-assessment of his impairment, it held (Burroughs v. City of Tucson, No. 18-16994 (9th Cir., March 5, 2020)).
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) also recently sued Union Pacific, alleging it failed to perform an individualized assessment to determine whether an employee could safely return to work, as the ADA requires. The worker had received a doctor's clearance but the employer, deeming the position "safety critical," declined to allow his return. The parties settled for $260,000, according to EEOC.
"Employers cannot impose restrictions on employees based on unreasonable fears. Rather, any restrictions must rely on an individualized assessment, based on reasonable medical evidence, of an employee's ability to perform the essential functions of the job safely," said Julianne Bowman, the EEOC's district director in Chicago, announcing the settlement, adding that the commission "is committed to the removal of unnecessary and discriminatory barriers to employment for employees who are regarded as disabled or based on their record of having a past disability."