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The Illinois Department of Transportation did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or the Rehabilitation Act by requiring that an employee who was behaving erratically submit to mental fitness-for-duty examinations before returning to work, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois ruled.
On Sept. 1, 2010, Deanna Painter was assigned to work as an office administrator at the Traffic Safety division of the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT). In the spring of 2011, Mike Stout, IDOT director of traffic safety, learned of an incident involving Painter in which she loudly accused a co-worker of prank calling her at the office.
Tom Kirk, Traffic Safety's HR manager, conducted an investigation and obtained written statements from witnesses. Painter was placed on paid administrative leave starting April 14, 2011. Kirk provided the statements to Marie Malek-Robinson, the IDOT fitness-for-duty examination coordinator, and she sent them to IDOT's fitness-for-duty physician, Dr. David Fletcher.
On April 22, 2011, following a fitness-for-duty exam of Painter, Fletcher submitted a report to IDOT finding Painter fit for duty but recommending a re-evaluation in 45 days based on her supervisor's observation of mood swings and her fast, tense speech during the evaluation.
During Painter's administrative leave, numerous employees complained to Stout and Kirk of incidents involving Painter. Kirk obtained statements from seven employees describing in detail outbursts by Painter and a habit she had of walking around the office talking to herself. Many employees expressed fears of physical violence, and security guards escorted several employees to their cars at the end of the day because they feared Painter approaching them after work.
On July 18, 2011, Painter saw Fletcher for a second fitness-for-duty exam. Fletcher expressed a concern that Painter might have bipolar disorder but deferred a finding pending testing by Dr. Karen Lee, a psychologist. In August 2011, Painter saw Lee; she was allowed to return to work on Sept. 26, 2011.
On Oct. 1, 2011, Painter was transferred to Day Labor (another IDOT division), where her supervisor was Stuart Hunt. Painter began keeping a detailed log of her interactions with co-workers at Day Labor to "try to figure out why [she] was put on leave." Hunt received statements from co-workers about Painter's behavior, and Painter began sending him numerous inappropriate and nonsensical e-mails. Hunt notified the Labor Relations division, and Painter was placed on paid administrative leave on Nov. 23, 2011. Dr. Terry Killian examined Painter and concluded that, although her comments suggested psychiatric illness, Painter was fit for duty.
After Painter returned to Day Labor, employees began submitting statements about her behavior in the workplace. On April 20, 2012, Painter sent an e-mail to her union representative, Tim Lynch, claiming that a clock in the conference room was deliberately set to the wrong time. Lynch responded that he thought the clock's battery was dead. Painter responded, "Something's dead alright—however, I prefer to be 'a lady' and not say what I think is dead." Painter included a smiley face emoticon at the end of the sentence.
IDOT treated Painter's e-mail as a potential threat and called the Illinois State Police. Painter was placed on paid administrative leave, and Killian again examined her. Killian submitted his report to IDOT, concluding that Painter was "psychiatrically unfit for duty as a result of paranoid thinking (caused by either paranoid personality disorder or delusional disorder) and the disruptive behavior which results from her paranoia."
In April 2014, Painter got a new job with the Illinois Department of Human Services as a caseworker. Painter then filed a lawsuit against IDOT, claiming that the fitness-for-duty exams were not "job-related and consistent with business necessity" under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act. IDOT filed a motion for summary judgment to dismiss Painter's claims.
In considering the motion, the court noted that the law allows inquiries into an employee's psychiatric health when they reflect concern for the safety of all employees and the public at large. The court found that IDOT gathered significant amounts of information before directing Painter to receive a mental health examination and that Painter did not challenge the accuracy of the information.
Additionally, IDOT acted reasonably in treating Painter's e-mail stating that "something's dead alright" as a threat. Accordingly, IDOT had a reasonable belief that Painter's medical condition would impair her ability to perform essential job functions or pose a threat to the office. The court granted summary judgment to IDOT and dismissed Painter's claim.
Painter v. Illinois Department of Transp., C.D. Ill., No. 13-3002 (July 20, 2016).
Professional Pointer: The ADA bars employers from requesting medical information from employees except as job-related and consistent with business necessity. This exception can sometimes be met by repeated behavioral issues or statements by an employee that demonstrate significant mental illness or a potential danger to others in the workplace.
Jeffrey Rhodes is an attorney with Doumar Martin in Arlington, Va.
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