Refusing to Attend a Fitness-For-Duty Exam May Not Be Grounds For Termination under the ADA

On January 25, 2016, the New Jersey Appellate Division clarified the requirements set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the related guidance issued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) as to when employers may require a medical examination or make inquiries of an employee as to whether such employee is an individual with a disability. In the case of In Re Paul Williams, the appellant-employee began working as a truck driver for the Department of Public Works for the Township of Lakewood in November 2003. In March 2013, the Township received an anonymous letter, purportedly written by another Public Works employee, expressing concern regarding Mr. Williams’s mental state and fear for his and his co-workers’ safety. More than eight months later, the Township scheduled psychological examinations and warned Mr. Williams that he would be subject to discipline should he fail to attend. Mr. Williams refused to attend and maintained that the examinations were not job-related and were thus illegal under the ADA. Under the ADA, examinations are lawful if they are “job-related and consistent with business necessity.”  The Township thereafter issued a Preliminary Notice of Disciplinary Action seeking his termination on the grounds of incompetency, inefficacy or failure to perform duties and other related charges. After the departmental hearing, the matter was appealed to the Office of Administrative Law.

The Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) found that there was not adequate evidence of the Township’s investigation into the anonymous letter to determine its veracity and thus agreed with Mr. Williams that the demand to attend the examinations was not related to work performance or any allegation of disruptive behavior. Moreover, the ALJ found that while Mr. Williams had failed to attend the exam, the request lacked a reasonable basis and thus, he could not be disciplined. The Township appealed the decision to the Civil Service Commission which reversed the ALJ’s determination.

On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed the guidance set forth by EEOC which defines “job-related and consistent with business necessity” as instances where an employer reasonably believe (through direct observation or reliable information from credible sources) that an employee’s medical condition is impacting his or her work or that, because of the medical condition, the employee serves as a direct threat. As the EEOC points out, “[t]hen and only then, may the employer lawfully require the employee to undergo a psychological fitness-for-duty examination.” The EEOC’s guidance also provides that employers may not require an employee to take a medical exam when the information received is based in whole or in part on information learned from third party unless it is reliable and would suggest that the employee’s ability to perform job duties or that a direct threat exists as a result of the medical condition.

The Appellate Division affirmed the EEOC’s guidance and sided with Mr. Williams, noting that the Township waited over eight months to require psychological examinations based largely on “innuendo and rumor” contained in the anonymous letter. Thus, the Court found that the Township failed to meet its burden under the ADA of demonstrating the examinations were “job-related and consistent with business necessity” and that Mr. Williams was a direct threat to himself, others or property. The Appellate Division ordered Williams reinstated and back pay calculated for his time suspended.

Employer Takeaways:

  • Requiring employees to attend a fitness-for-duty examination must be “job-related and consistent with business necessity.” Employers must have objective evidence to support any required medical examination.
  • An employer must conduct a timely individualized assessment to determine the reliability of third party information regarding an employee’s medical condition: the relationship of the source to the employee, the seriousness of the medical conditional the possibility motivation of the third party providing the information, how the third party learned of the information, as well as other evidence that the employer has that bears on the reliability of the information.

For more information regarding compliance with accommodating disabilities, requiring independent medical examinations in compliance with the ADA, and EEOC’s guidance regarding same, please contact Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Director of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at dmastellone@nullgenovaburns.com or 973-533-0777.