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Fitness for duty examinations must meet a standard of being job related and consistent with business necessity. If the employer does not have enough to meet this standard, the employer may be sued for discrimination under the ADA for improperly requiring a fitness examination. The employer in Painter v. Illinois Department of Transportation, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 94940 (D. Ill. July 21, 2016) addressed the issue of meeting the job-related standard by obtaining detailed statements from co-employees supporting the need for a fitness examination.
Deanna Painter was assigned to a position of Office Administrator at Traffic Safety, which was part of a division of the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT). The initial problem concerned an incident involving plaintiff and a co-worker where plaintiff loudly accused the co-worker of prank calling her in the Spring of 2011. Plaintiff was put on administrative leave at that time. An investigation of this incident led to other employees preparing written statements regarding what they witnessed. These statements were given to the IDOT fit-for-duty physician, Dr. Fletcher, who then made a decision whether there was a basis for a fitness examination.
Dr. Fletcher read the statements and determined that a fitness exam was needed. He found plaintiff fit for duty but recommended a reevaluation in 45 days. Around the same time, other employees surfaced and described other incidents involving plaintiff. Seven more employees wrote statements, describing how the plaintiff would have frequent outbursts and would walk around the office while talking to herself. Some expressed fears for their own safety. Two or three employees insisted on being escorted by security guards to their cars at the end of the day because they feared that plaintiff would approach them in the parking lot while she was on leave.
Interestingly, plaintiff admitted in her deposition that she had issues with 11 employees in the Traffic Safety area. The statements from this new group of employees were given to Dr. Fletcher, who again saw plaintiff for a fitness examination but recommended that she see a psychologist, Dr. Karen Lee. After seeing plaintiff, Dr. Lee decided to take plaintiff as her personal patient, thereby creating a conflict of interest and preventing her from informing the employer of her views.
On September 26, 2011, plaintiff returned to work but in the Day Labor division of IDOT as an office administrator. Her supervisor noticed that she was making logs of actions of co-employees and conversations with co-employees and reprimanded her for this. Plaintiff said that she was creating the logs in order to document everything so that she could figure out why she had been placed on leave. Her supervisor pointed out that none of the people in Day Labor had been involved in her situation in Traffic Safety.
Her new co-workers began to complain about plaintiff’s behavior. Her supervisor also complained that she was sending him emails in the middle of the night that were nonsensical. Plaintiff was again put on administrative leave on November 23, 2011. Two employees prepared statements that said they feared for their safety. Plaintiff again went for a fitness exam and was again authorized to return to work. After returning to work, plaintiff sent an email to her union representative stating: “for the record, the clock in the small conference room being set to 4:30 PM when it was only 4:00 PM – that is a tell-tale sign for me. It told me everything I needed to know. Thanks.” Plaintiff included a smiley-face emoticon with this email. The union rep responded that he did not understand the reference and thought the battery was dead. Plaintiff responded, “Something’s dead alright – however, I prefer to be ‘a lady’ and not say what I think is dead.” This email was treated by IDOT and the Illinois State Police as a threat.
Plaintiff was again placed on administrative leave and sent for a fitness examination. This time she was found to be psychiatrically unfit for duty as a result of paranoid thinking. Plaintiff’s own psychiatrist disputed this finding. Plaintiff sued and alleged that she was improperly required to attend fitness examinations. She later became employed with the Illinois Department of Human Services.
The federal court ruled for the employer stating that there was ample reason to require the fitness examinations: “The record establishes that prior to each leave and subsequent exam, multiple employees raised concerns about the Plaintiff’s behavior in the workplace. A number of employees felt unsafe around the Plaintiff. Certain employees did not want to be alone around her and some were afraid to walk to their cars at night. The Plaintiff shouted at her co-workers, talked in a fast-paced manner and talked to herself at times. The Plaintiff’s supervisors considered the employees’ statements and their own interactions before determining that Plaintiff was a security risk to the other employees.”
The case is interesting because it shows how careful the employer in this case was in documenting the basis for the fitness examination. The care which the employer took was clearly warranted, and the result was that the employer easily defeated plaintiff’s ADA law suit.
John H. Geaney, Esq., is an Executive Committee Member and a Shareholder in Capehart Scatchard's Workers’ Compensation Group. Mr. Geaney concentrates his practice in the representation of employers, self-insured companies, third-party administrators, and insurance carriers in workers’ compensation, the Americans with Disabilities Act and Family and Medical Leave Act. Should you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Mr. Geaney at 856.914.2063 or by e‑mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.