The Connecticut Appellate Court today ruled that an employer did not wrongfully discharge an employee who refused to participate in a return to work medical examination.  The Court held that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) allows for medical examinations in certain situations and that the employer was justified in asking for one in this case. 

In Joyner v. Simkins Industries, Inc., (officially released November 4, 2008) (download here), the discharged employee claimed that the employer violated the public policy underlying the ADA by requiring her to undergo a return to work medical examination.  Under the "wrongful discharge" theory, she contended, she should not only be allowed to proceed with her claim but prevail on it as well.

(Notably, the Appellate Court doesn’t explain why the wrongful discharge claim — which is a narrow exception to the employment-at-will doctrine — is the proper vehicle for such a claim when the employee might have explored a direct ADA claim.  I’ll followup on that issue in a future blog post.)

The Appellate Court found that under the ADA (42 U.S.C. 12112(d)), employers must show that the medical examination is job-related and consistent with business necessity.  The Court said that federal circuit court decisions that have held that "business necessities may include ensuring that the workplace is safe and secure or cutting down on egregious absenteeism."  Here, the Court said that the employer had a legitimate interest in following up due to the vagueness of various notes and the employee’s refusal to discuss the matter with her employer.

What was helpful for the employer in this situation was a policy in the employee handbook that provided for medical examinations — at the employer expense — in certain situation.

Thus, the takeaway for employers from this case is three-fold:

  • Use this case as an opportunity to review your existing policies and procedures on return to work medical examinations;
  • When employees refuse to return to work from absences or provide only scant documentation, consider using medical examinations to force the issue;
  • Understand what is — and is not — allowed under the ADA regarding issues of return to work and medical examinations.

As always, the specific facts of the situation are important so consult with an attorney if you have any questions that arise.