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One of the challenges for employers is determining when a fitness-for-duty examination can be required and when it cannot be. This issue sometimes flows from a workers’ compensation case following a long period of absence but also emerges in other situations unrelated to workers’ compensation. In Margaret Wright v. Illinois Department of Children and Family Services,798 F.3d 513 (7th Cir. 2015), the issue arose from conduct that the employer thought was grossly inadequate.
Margaret Wright worked as a caseworker at the Peoria Illinois Field Office for 25 years. In 2005 she became the caseworker for CPL, a 10-year-old ward of the Department, who resided at the Rice Child and Family Center. Following an incident at Rice, Dr. Costa interviewed CPL and determined that Wright had caused CPL to go into a frenzy because she told CPL that there were four foster families available to her in spite of the fact that CPL was not yet on the foster-care list due to her emotional problems. CPL then refused to take her medications and said she no longer had to listen to anyone because she was leaving Rice. CPL incited a riot in her unit during which children threw and broke furniture and attempted to attack the staff.
Dr. Costa concluded that Wright’s conduct posed a risk to CPL. He issued a medical order preventing Wright from having further contact with CPL and the Department removed Wright from the case. Wright filed a grievance and issues arose regarding Wright’s conduct over the years. Costa backed up his recommendations with a letter stating that he felt Wright’s mental health needed to be assessed. Rather than issue a reprimand, the Department chose to require the mental status examination, asserting that Ms. Wright had a history of defiance to all levels of management; she had been verbally abusive in the past and had an abrasive manner with foster parents. Wright refused to attend the fitness examination and filed a grievance. Eventually, she agreed to go to the examination but refused to answer the doctor’s questions. Instead she questioned the doctor on why an evaluation was ordered of her in the first place.
Wright was suspended and took vacation time. During the period of suspension, she contacted the State Employees’ Retirement System to determine the impact that quitting or being discharged would have on her pension. She learned that she was eligible to retire with a reduced pension. She then submitted her retirement effective September 30, 2007. After she retired, Wright sued her former employer for violating her rights under the ADA and for constructively discharging her.
After two lengthy trials, the case proceeded to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. The Court first referred to EEOC Guidance stating that an examination is job-related and consistent with business necessity when an employer has a reasonable belief based on objective evidence that a medical condition will impair an employee’s ability to perform essential job functions or that the employee will pose a threat due to a medical condition. It said that fitness exams can be justified when an employer can identify legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons to doubt the employee’s capacity to perform his or her duties, but it is not enough that an employee’s behavior is annoying or inefficient.
The Court decided against the Department in this case. “In our view, the district court correctly determined that the evidence submitted at trial was insufficient to establish, as a matter of law, that requiring Ms. Wright to undergo a fitness-for-duty evaluation was consistent with business necessity. The Court focused heavily on the different way in which Wright was treated from other employees who were required to attend fitness examinations. In those other cases, the employees were placed on desk duty pending the examination. In this case, when Wright was instructed on June 4, 2007 to attend a fitness examination, she was not placed on desk duty. In fact, she was assigned a new case which turned out to be a sensitive one. One department employee testified that it did seem contradictory to assign a new and sensitive case to someone whose mental status was being questioned.
The Court concluded, “The evidence presented at trial supports a finding that the Department did not believe that Ms. Wright posed a safety risk to the children with whom she worked and, instead, that it considered her competent to continue working with approximately two dozen children. Given this evidence, a reasonable jury could determine that Ms. Wright’s fitness-for-duty examination was not, in fact, consistent with business necessity.”
The case is important because it shows how courts will evaluate whether an employer has met the job-related and consistent with business necessity standard. The court will look at how the employer treated the employee in question during the time of the fitness examination and in relation to how other employees have been treated when required to attend fitness examinations. Since the basis for the examination of Wright was an alleged direct threat of harm to others, it made no sense that Wright continued to handle her cases and got a new and sensitive case to work on. While Wright prevailed on this aspect of her case, she lost her constructive discharge claim because the Court believed that she retired in the end mainly because she found out that early retirement was available to her, not because of the conduct of the Department.
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.