Second Circuit Clarifies ADA's Prohibition Against "Medical Inquiries"
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recently ruled that the New York Department of Correctional Service's sick leave policy, requiring corrections officers to submit a general diagnosis as a precondition to returning to work following certain absences, falls within the scope of a provision of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") that prohibits most medical inquiries by employers. The Court returned the case to the district court for further evaluation of whether the policy was nevertheless justified by the unique demands of the work of corrections officers. Conroy v. New York Dep't. of Corr. Servs., No. 02-7415 (2d Cir. June 18, 2003).
The plaintiffs in Conroy were employees of the Department of Correctional Services ("DOCS") who objected to a DOCS policy requiring employees seeking to return from sick leave to obtain a "brief general diagnosis that is sufficiently informative as to allow [DOCS] to make a determination concerning the employee's entitlement to leave or to evaluate the need to have an employee examined by [the Employee Health Service] prior to returning to work." The policy further mandated that "[i]f a doctor's note states that an employee is 'under my care,' this is not sufficient. However, if a doctor's note, for example, states 'recuperating from minor surgery' or 'treated for a minor foot injury,' this is a sufficient diagnosis." The plaintiffs brought suit in federal court, claiming that the DOCS policy violated the provision of the ADA relating to medical inquiries, which provides:
A covered entity shall not require a medical examination and shall not make inquiries of an employee as to whether such employee is an individual with a disability or as to the nature or severity of the disability unless such an examination or inquiry is shown to be job-related and consistent with business necessity.
42 U.S.C. § 12221(d)(4)(A).
The district court granted the plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment and enjoined DOCS from enforcing the challenged policy. DOCS appealed this decision to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Observing that there are few court decisions applying the relevant provision of the ADA, the Second Circuit relied on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's ("EEOC") interpretation of the statute, which describes a "disability-related inquiry" as:
a question that is likely to elicit information about a disability, such as asking employees about whether they have or ever had a disability; the kinds of prescription medications they are taking; and, the results of any genetic tests they have had. . . Questions that are not likely to elicit information about a disability are always permitted, and they include asking employees about their general well-being; whether they can perform job functions; and about their current illegal use of drugs.
See Questions and Answers: Enforcement Guidance on Disability-Related Inquires and Medical Examinations of Employees Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), (EEOC July 27, 2000), available at http://www.eeoc.gov/docs/qanda-inquiries.html . Utilizing this rationale, the Court found that the DOCS policy was a disability-related inquiry and that "requiring a general diagnosis is sufficient to trigger the protections of the ADA."
At the same time, however, the Court's opinion highlighted the special circumstances involved in correctional services work and observed that the DOCS policy might fall into the "job-related" and "business necessity" exception to the ADA's prohibition on medical inquiries. This exception permits an employer to make an otherwise prohibited inquiry into an employee's health if "the employer had some reason for suspecting that the employee, or class of employees, would be unable to perform essential job functions or would pose a danger to the health and safety of the workplace." Fountain v. New YorkState Dep't of Corr. Servs., 190 F. Supp. 2d 335, 339 (N.D.N.Y. 2002). In discussing the applicability of the defense to the facts in Conroy, the Second Circuit endorsed the reasoning of the Ninth Circuit, which had found that proof of a business necessity requires a showing of more than "mere expediency," Cripe v. City of San Jose, 261 F.3d 877, 890 (9th Cir. 2001). The Court in Conroy also observed, however, that a business necessity justifying an otherwise prohibited medical inquiry may include "ensuring that the workplace is safe and secure or cutting down on egregious absenteeism." The Court concluded that "[we] do not believe that the ADA categorically prohibits an employer from implementing a general policy requiring medical certification with general notice. . . . Nonetheless, we emphasize that the examination of whether a policy actually contributes to the business necessity is vital." The Court then remanded the case to the district court to evaluate whether the DOCS policy was drawn in a sufficiently narrow fashion to fall within the business necessity exception.
The Second Circuit's decision in Conroy helps clarify an area of law that has not frequently been addressed by the courts. Clearly, Conroy leaves room for employers to request medical certification from employees as a precondition to their returning to work. For example, an employer did not violate the ADA when requesting that an employee whose job required lifting submit to a medical exam after having back surgery because the information sought would reveal whether the employee could perform his essential job functions. Porter v. United States Alumoweld Co., 125 F.3d 243, 246 (4th Cir. 1997). However, employers must take care to ensure that their requests are not overly broad and are closely related to a "business necessity."