United States: Rock And A [Softer] Hard Place: Seventh Circuit Eases The Burden For Accommodating Employees With Mental Health Disabilities

Seyfarth Synopsis: Complying with the ADA, particularly when an employee has a mental health-related disability, can be challenging. Fortunately, a recent decision out of the Seventh Circuit provides helpful guidance for employers struggling to accommodate employees with mental health issues while at the same time maintaining safe and productive workplaces. The decision makes clear that in the appropriate circumstances, employers can require an employee to undergo a mental health examination as part of a fitness-for-duty test. The decision—and the New Year—also provides a good excuse for employers to evaluate their ADA policies and procedures.

Every year, employers and HR Departments around the country struggle to comply with the requirements of the ADA. At the same time, ADA-related issues continue to become more complicated, and the individualized nature of disability claims mean that even the most accommodating employers can find themselves making tough decisions—and then having to defend those decisions.

On top of this, there has been a steady rise in employees taking prescription drugs or receiving some form of psychiatric or other mental health treatment. In many cases, these employees have no problem performing their jobs, and no issues arise. However, when these employees begin to struggle in their jobs or, even worse, when they engage in problematic and sometimes aggressive behavior toward co-workers, employers must balance ADA compliance with maintaining safe and professional workplaces. This will continue to be difficult, but a recent decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit provides some helpful guidance.

Background on the Case

In Painter v. Illinois Department of Transportation, the Seventh Circuit recently considered when an employer can required an employee to undergo a mental health examination. In that case, Painter, the plaintiff, was a problematic employee, who snapped and screamed at co-workers, gave them blank stares, constantly mumbled to herself, repeatedly banged drawers in her office, was confrontational and argumentative, and began keeping a detailed log of interactions with co-workers during working time, often drafting more than one entry per hour. Painter even sent a concerning email to her union representative, in which she referenced "something" being "dead" and which prompted her union representative to contact the police.

Faced with numerous employee concerns and continued difficulties with Painter, her employer, the Illinois Department of Transportation ("IDOT"), asked that she undergo a fitness-for-duty exam. Initially, IDOT referred Painter to an occupational-medicine specialist, who in turn referred her to a psychiatrist because he noted that Painter could be bipolar. Eventually, after several doctor visits, administrative leave, and continued co-worker and supervisor complaints, IDOT asked Painter to undergo two fitness-for-duty exams with a psychiatrist. At first the psychiatrist cleared Painter to return to work, but when the complaints and concerning behavior continued (and after Painter sent the threatening email to her union representative), the psychiatrist found that Painter was unfit for duty because of her "paranoid thinking and the highly disruptive behavior which results from her paranoia." Painter then brought suit, alleging that IDOT's requirement that she see a psychiatrist violated the ADA.

The Seventh Circuit's Reasoning

Under the ADA, employers are prohibited from requiring their workers to undergo medical exams, unless the exams are "job-related and consistent with business necessity." Courts across the country have held that the job-related and business necessity test is a difficult burden for employers to meet. Luckily, the Seventh Circuit took a pragmatic view of IDOT's decision to require psychiatric exams. The Court stated that when the 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," the employer may require a medical exam. The Court also noted that preventing employers from endangering their co-workers is a business necessity, and the Court found that "[e]mployers need not retain workers who, because of a disability, might harm someone; such a rule would force an employer to risk a negligence suit to avoid violating the ADA."

Applying this legal framework to the facts of the case, the Seventh Circuit ruled that, as a matter of law, the psychiatrist examinations were job-related and consistent with business necessity because IDOT reasonably believed that Painter might be a danger to herself and co-workers. Thus, IDOT did not violate the ADA.

Takeaways and Best Practices

The Seventh Circuit's decision is welcome news for employers, and it injects much needed common sense into the ADA case law. In particular, employers and HR Departments can consider asking employees to see a psychiatrist for a fitness-for-duty exam in the right circumstances. However, employers must still be careful that any medical examination they require an employee to undergo is directly related to a reasonable belief that the employee cannot perform the essential functions of his or her job.

In addition, there are a number of other proactive steps employers can consider to help ensure that disability-related issues are handled appropriately, such as (1) providing ADA and disability training to supervisors and managers, (2) referring all disability claims to HR, (3) implementing a written procedure for dealing with disability claims, (4) going through the interactive process in all instances, (5) ensuring all job descriptions are up-to-date and accurate, (6) documenting everything, and (7) working with a competent physician or medical professional, as appropriate.

ADA and disability-related issues will only continue to proliferate in today's workplace. Fortunately, at least one court has recognized the practical necessities employers face when complying with the ADA. By knowing the requirements of the ADA and taking proactive steps to ensure compliance, employers can put themselves in the best possible position to handle all disability-related issues appropriately and minimize any legal risk.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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