Does the ADA force employers to allow employees with medical restrictions to overrule their doctors?

noun-prescription-3585781If you’re in Human Resources, you’ve probably dealt with this issue before.

An employee with a disability submits a doctor’s note expressly instructing the employee to avoid performing certain essential functions of their job. But the employee tells you that they can do those tasks anyway, if truly necessary.

Does the Americans with Disabilities Act require the employer to take the employee’s word over their doctor?

According to this recent Seventh Circuit decision, the answer is no.

In the Seventh Circuit case, the employee was a sergeant in a department of corrections. He sought a promotion to lieutenant. However, the employee had a back injury, and a doctor’s note he had provided his employer stated that he needed to “avoid situations in which there is a significant chance of violence or conflict.”

As you may imagine, dealing with potentially violent situations would be an essential function of a job at a prison. But the employee contended that he could respond “if necessary” in such an emergency.

Let’s turn to the ADA.

The ADA prohibits discrimination against a “qualified individual on the basis of disability.” A qualified individual, “with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position.” Therefore, an employer must make reasonable accommodations that will allow qualified individuals to perform the essential functions of their job.

If dealing with dangerous situations is an essential function of the lieutenant position, the plaintiff is not a “qualified individual” under the ADA if he can perform certain tasks of the job “if necessary,” even though his doctor says he should “avoid” performing them.

The Seventh Circuit explained why the plaintiff couldn’t have it both ways.

On one hand, he seeks an accommodation because he is to “avoid situations in which there is a significant chance of violence or conflict.” On the other, he seeks to convince us that his medical restriction is not as restrictive as it appears. He argues that the [defendant] simply misunderstands the word “avoid.” To [the plaintiff], “avoid” does not mean “never do it.” It means something more like “limit,” and defining it should be part of the ADA’s required “interactive process” between [the parties]. He argues that the meaning of “avoid” is a question for a jury, not this court. We disagree.

Health care professionals who prescribe these kinds of medical restrictions know the difference between “avoid” and “occasionally” and “sometimes,” particularly with respect to the physical demands of jobs. So do we… 

“Avoid” means “avoid.” …”[A]void” is … prohibitive. 

So employees, like the plaintiff here, cannot have it both ways. “Avoid” means “avoid” and not “limit.”

Much like an employee has the right to a reasonable accommodation when providing one will enable the employee to perform the essential functions of the job without undue hardship on the company, your business can accept a medical restriction at face value according to its plain meaning.

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