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Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an employer may rely on a credible, scientifically based medical opinion to exclude someone from returning to work, even if that opinion is contradicted by another medical provider’s opinion, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.
This holding came in the case of a city that decided not to allow a police officer to come back to work after his medical leave for brain surgery. Here’s a timeline of the relevant facts:
The neuropsychologist to whom Michael was referred by the city interviewed Michael for a total of seven hours, conducting various neurological tests, and then drafted an 11-page detailed written report in which she opined that he “may be a threat to himself or others.” Based on that report, the city put Michael on unpaid leave.
Subsequently, Michael sought his own evaluations and received opinions from other medical providers that he was fit to return to duty. (One other neuropsychologist hired by Michael to evaluate him agreed with the original opinion of “direct threat,” but Michael did not provide that report to his superiors.)
Michael then sued the city of Troy and its police department under the ADA, alleging that he was a “qualified individual with a disability” and that the city had discriminated against him on that basis. The lower court granted summary judgment in favor of the city, holding that Michael was not qualified for the position of patrol officer. Michael appealed to the 6th Circuit, which upheld the lower court’s ruling.
The ADA protects individuals who are qualified for their positions from unfair firings or demotions. However, under that same law, an individual with a disability is deemed not to be qualified if he or she poses a “direct threat” to the health or safety of others that cannot be eliminated by a reasonable accommodation.
Whether an employer properly determines an individual to be a direct threat, for purposes of the ADA, depends on the objective reasonableness of the employer’s actions. For example, an employer’s actions are deemed to be reasonable when the employer relies on a medical opinion that itself is objectively reasonable. That opinion does not have to be uncontroverted and may conflict with other opinions, but it still can be viewed by the courts as objectively reasonable if based on sound and thorough medical reasoning.
The 6th Circuit pointed out that there have been cases in which courts have held medical opinions of “direct threat” to be unreasonable, but those cases did not involve the level of detail found in the report regarding Michael. In one case, a doctor opined that an individual could not be a lifeguard because “he’s deaf”; in another, a doctor simply provided “two scribbled lines at the bottom of a boilerplate evaluation form.”
Michael v. City of Troy Police Dep't, 6th Cir., No. 14-2478 (Dec. 14, 2015).
Professional Pointer: According to the 6th Circuit, the combination of the neuropsychologist’s testing and opinion, along with the investigation of Michael’s conduct, led the city to its objectively reasonable conclusion. A well-thought-out and detailed dissent in this case raises points for discussion, including questions regarding the court’s criteria for the determination of what constitutes a “reasonably objective” medical opinion. This issue seems to be far from clear, and is one that both employers and employees should be watching for further development.
Maria Greco Danaher is a shareholder in the Pittsburgh office of Ogletree Deakins, an international labor and employment law firm representing management.
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