When can you ask an employee with a disability for more medical information?

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Every once in a while, a different client calls me with the same Americans with Disabilities Act question, “Eric, our employee tells us that she has a disability and needs and accommodation. Can we ask for medical documentation to help us evaluate whether an accommodation request is reasonable?

Yep.

And here is a recent Fifth Circuit decision to prove it.

In this particular case, the employer had an accommodation compliance policy, which was available to all employees. The ADA compliance policy provided for an “interactive dialogue” for determining what reasonable accommodations were appropriate for employees who requested them. This process could require “submission of medical information completed by the treating physician” and other information.

Let’s pause here and take notes:

  • Written ADA policy ✔
  • That contemplates an interactive dialogue with an employee with a disability ✔
  • And notifies employees that the company may need medical information ✔

I’m liking this so far. But, how does it play out in reality?

Well, the plaintiff in this case took leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. But, before her leave expired, she began the process of requesting an ADA accommodation for additional time off. That included providing a note from her doctor. Except, this note wasn’t exactly a model of clarity. The plaintiff’s doctor reported the duration of the plaintiff’s condition as both “unknown” and two to three months, and the basis of the diagnosis was the plaintiff’s self-reporting her inability to work due to anxiety.

Undeterred, the employer requested additional information from the doctor to substantiate the plaintiff’s accommodation request and determine what type of accommodation might be appropriate. The company also informed the plaintiff that her request could not be approved based only upon the information her doctor provided and that if not supported by medical documentation, her past absences would be considered unexcused.

The plaintiff ultimately failed to provide any additional medical support despite extensions of time to do so. So, one month after the final deadline passed unmet, the plaintiff was fired for “myriad unexcused absences.” How myriad, you ask? She had missed 298.88 hours in the last 365 days, 296 of which had occurred in the last ninety days.

So, she sued her [former] employer for failing to accommodate her disability, which the Fifth Circuit gave the back of the hand:

[The parties] engaged in an interactive dialogue, but it was not clear how much time off [the plaintiff] requested. Her doctor’s notes suggest that it might have been indefinite, which is manifestly not a reasonable accommodation. [The defendant] repeatedly requested adequate documentation to no avail. If an employee fails to provide requested documentation to substantiate a claim of disability and thereby causes a breakdown in the interactive process, the employer has not violated the ADA. 

That means, yes, you can request additional documentation if what the employee has already provided in support of an ADA accommodation leaves you feeling like… Just be careful not to go overboard. That is, if the employee says that she suffers from anxiety, it’s not ok to ask for a full physical examination and family history.

For more information on the ADA and disability-related inquiries, check this out.

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