Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals
No. 06-2588, 2007 WL 4561504
December 27, 2007
Keywords: disability-related inquiries, employment, legal concepts, medical examination, reasonable accommodation
Facts of the Case
Mr. David L. Denman began working for Davey Tree Expert Co. (Davey) in August 2000 and in October 2001 he was terminated for failing to show up to work for two-weeks. However, in April 2002 Davey rehired Mr. Denman as a B-Foreman, and in August 2004 promoted Mr. Denham. As an A-foreman, Mr. Denman is responsible for removing trees along power lines, driving a skidder, climbing trees, using chainsaws, sharpening chains, and maintaining other equipment necessary to remove unwanted trees.
Mr. Denman did not report to work from August 2 to 18, 2004. On August 19 he returned to work and provided his supervisor, Mr. Currie, with information on bipolar disorder, the ADA, and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) without further explanation. Mr. Currie believed Mr. Denman was requesting an accommodation by providing this information; therefore, he forwarded the information to Davey’s North Central Regional Manager, Mr. Bloomfield. Mr. Bloomfield in turn requested a meeting with Mr. Denman and Mr. Currie to discuss the information. By the end of this meeting Mr. Bloomfield placed Mr. Denman on unpaid leave until he could provide a physician’s statement regarding his bipolar disorder and his ability to safely perform his duties as a foreman.
Mr. Denman did not provide Davey with a medical statement, and he did not submit to an Independent Medical Examination. Instead, he contacted a lawyer who began, “a letter writing campaign” with Davey over their request for a physician’s statement. On October 12, 2004, Davey terminated Mr. Denman considering him to have abandoned his job.
Issue of the Case
- When can an employer request a medical inquiry to seek information about an employees’ disability?
Arguments & Analysis
The ADA protects individuals with disabilities from medical inquiries that are unrelated to the job and inconsistent with business necessity. A medical inquiry is not discriminatory when the employee either: 1) requests an accommodation, 2) is unable to perform essential job functions, or 3) poses a direct threat to himself or others. Additionally, in Sullivan v. River Valley School District, the Sixth Circuit held “there must be significant evidence that could cause a reasonable person to inquire as to whether an employee is still capable of performing his job,” and “any examination ordered by the employer must be restricted to discovering whether the employee can continue to fulfill the essential functions of the job.”
Mr. Denman argued his termination violated the ADA because his termination was in “retaliation” for asserting his rights to Medical Leave. Mr. Denman also noted that Mr. Currie made a previous “statement that his job performance was ‘excellent.’”
Davey argued it had a reasonable belief that Mr. Denman’s medical condition would cause him to be unable to perform the essential functions of his job—namely showing up to work.
The Court found no need to address Mr. Denman’s claims of retaliation and discrimination, but instead found Davey’s request was necessary to determine if Mr. Denman had the ability to perform the essential functions of the job. The Court found attendance to be an essential function of Mr. Denman’s job, noting Davey’s leave of absence policy makes this clear. Mr. Denman missed work not only from August 2–18, but previously was fired for the same reason. The Court concluded it reasonable for Davey to believe Mr. Denman’s bipolar disorder could affect his essential job function of showing up to work.
Policy & Practice
In this case, the Sixth Circuit held showing up to work was an essential function of the Foreman position, and when an employee asserts a disability as the reason for absences, the employer is justified in requesting a medical examination.
Disability-related inquiries and medical examinations that follow up on a request for reasonable accommodation when the disability or need for accommodation is not known or obvious may be job-related and consistent with business necessity.
- EEOC Enforcement Guidance – Disability Related Inquiries and Medical Examinations of Employees under the ADA
These materials do not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon in any individual case. Please consult an attorney licensed in your state for legal advice and/or representation. These materials were prepared by the legal research staff of the Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University in partnership with the Southeast ADA Center to highlight legal and policy developments relevant to civil rights protections and the impact of court decisions in the Southeast Region under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These materials are based on federal disability rights laws and court decisions in effect at the time of publication. Federal and state disability rights law can change at any time. In addition, state and local laws and regulations may provide different or additional protections. Materials are intended solely as informal guidance, and are neither a determination of your legal rights nor responsibilities under the ADA or other federal, state, and local laws, nor binding on any agency with enforcement responsibility under the ADA. The accuracy of any information contained herein is not warranted. Any links to external websites are provided as a courtesy and are not intended to nor do they constitute an endorsement of the linked materials.