6th Cir.: BP's reliance on doctors' notes defeats disability discrimination claim
- An employer's decision to bar an employee from returning to work after a stroke didn't amount to disability discrimination because the company was following the opinions of two doctors, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled (Stanley v. BP Products North America, Inc. aka BP-Husky Refining, LLC., No. 18-3303 (6th Cir., Dec. 4, 2018)).
- Less than a year after a serious stroke, BP Products North America did not allow Morris Stanley to come back to work, citing the opinions of a company doctor and Stanley's doctor indicating that he was not yet able to perform his duties. Later, Stanley was allowed back to work when the company's physician cleared him. Stanley sued, claiming that the delay was attributable to disability discrimination, in violation of a state law that mirrors the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. The district court granted summary judgment to the employer, concluding that Stanley was not able to perform essential functions of the job at the time of the initial evaluation and that BPPNA's reliance on medical opinions was not pretext for discrimination.
- The appeals court affirmed, noting that the employer reasonably relied upon the note from one of the doctors that he agreed with the other doctor's assessment. Moreover, the employer's adherence to the requirements laid out in a collective bargaining agreement show that its reasons for not returning Stanley to work were not pretext for disability discrimination.
This case demonstrates that employers can rely on medical opinions, especially those coming from an employee's doctor. The FMLA generally does not authorize an employer to make its own determination of whether an employee is fit to return to work but, rather, states that the employer must rely on the evaluation done by the employee's own health care provider.
An employer should be wary, however, of relying solely on its doctor, especially if he or she is in disagreement with the employee's doctor, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says in an ADA guidance. It suggests that an employer be cautious about relying solely on the opinion of its own health care professional where that opinion is contradicted by documentation from the employee's own treating physician, who is knowledgeable about the employee's medical condition and job functions and other objective evidence.
Additionally, EEOC says that in evaluating conflicting medical information, an employer may find it helpful to consider:
- the medical professional's area of expertise;
- the kind of information each person providing documentation has about the job's essential functions and the work environment in which they are performed;
- whether a particular opinion is based on speculation or on current, objectively verifiable information about the risks associated with a particular condition; and
- whether the medical opinion is contradicted by information known to or observed by the employer such as information about the employee's actual experience on the job or in previous similar jobs.
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Enforcement Guidance: Disability-related Inquiries And Medical Examinations Of Employees Under The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)