- A Tucson firefighter’s only evidence of disability — a "conclusory self-assessment" — wasn’t enough to persuade the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that his Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) suit should be revived (Burroughs v. City of Tucson, No. 18-16994 (9th Cir., March 5, 2020)).
- Michael Burroughs sued Tucson, claiming disability discrimination based on a back strain. He had, however, multiple times received clearance to work without restrictions from examining doctors, leading a district court to grant summary judgment to the employer.
- The appeals court affirmed the lower court’s decision in favor of the city. The 9th Circuit said the record failed to show that Burroughs had an ADA-covered disability. "Faced with these medical opinions based on physical examinations, Burroughs’ only contrary evidence is his own conclusory self-assessment," the court said.
It’s easier for employees to qualify for the ADA's protection than before the 2009 amendments, but they still have to meet a certain threshold. The changes to the law broadened its coverage and shifted the focus away from inquiries into whether an employee has a disability and toward the questions of whether accommodations are available and whether discrimination occurred.
Employers can rely on medical opinions, especially those coming from an employee's doctor, but an employer should be wary of relying solely on its doctor, especially if his or her findings do not agree with those of the employee's doctor, according the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said in an ADA guidance.
Experts also recommend that employers ask for medical documentation only when necessary. "Good judgment" should be deployed when employers decide whether medical documentation from an appropriate professional is needed, Jill Luft, an attorney with Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale, P.C., previously told HR Dive. If the disability and need for accommodation are clear — such as when an employee who uses a wheelchair has difficulty navigating around equipment in a factory — the employer and the employee may be able to find a suitable accommodation without seeking the opinion of a medical professional. Requiring an employee to provide medical information from his or her health professional generally occurs when an employee has a condition that is not obvious such as migraines, diabetes or depression, she said.
In general, experts recommend that employers not attempt to make medical judgments and focus instead on whether accommodations are available.