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When an employee asks for a disability accommodation, an employer may be inclined to request a doctor's note. But is this generally the best move for the company?
The issue of if and when to ask for a doctor's note is a matter of debate. One lawyer interviewed by SHRM Online emphasized the need for doctors' notes in the vast majority of cases to show medical justification for an accommodation. But two other lawyers emphasized that doctors' notes are needed only in certain situations, stressing that it depends on the circumstances.
Under California law, companies generally must provide "reasonable accommodation" to workers who can't perform necessary job functions because of a disability. Employers also must engage in the "interactive process" with workers who need this type of accommodation. The interactive process is an ongoing effort by both sides to evaluate potential accommodations.
[SHRM members-only how-to guide: How to Manage Disability Accommodations in California]
This process is governed by the Fair Employment and Housing Act, which protects disabled employees from discrimination and harassment.
Despite the debate over doctors' notes, lawyers say they're not aware of any court rulings on this specific topic.
Should You Ask for a Note?
There are valid reasons to ask workers for a doctor's note, according to Nancy Yaffe, an attorney with Fox Rothschild in Los Angeles. Generally, if an employee lacks a note, the employer won't know if the accommodation is medically necessary, she said. And without a note, the employer won't know how long the accommodation should last, she added.
In October, Yaffe debated the issue of doctors' notes during a Los Angeles County Bar Association panel discussion. In a blog post, Yaffe wrote that "one issue that sparked a lot of debate among the panelists (and attendees) was my recommendation to employers to consistently request a doctor's note to substantiate requests for accommodations, and to facilitate the interactive process. My advice was based on my experience with employees who ask for the moon (such as the stated need for a walking desk or first class air travel or a job transfer to a role for a preferred supervisor), but often can't substantiate those requests with any medical requirement."
Because many disabilities aren't visible, "accommodation requests can't be properly evaluated without medical justification," Yaffe wrote.
She told SHRM Online of a situation in which a client's employee was injured in a car accident. The woman hurt her knee, and the employer accommodated her by letting her sit with her leg up and by giving her a parking spot convenient to the workplace so she wouldn't have to walk far.
Yaffe recalled that the new HR director called her a year and a half later, asking: "Hey, Nancy, why does this woman have this parking spot?"
It turns out that the business never requested an updated doctor's note from the employee. When the company finally resumed the interactive process and followed up about the employee's need for an accommodation, it was discovered that the accommodation wasn't necessary anymore.
"My default is that in the vast, vast majority of circumstances, it's absolutely appropriate to ask for a doctor's note," Yaffe said. "Overwhelmingly, the policy should be to get a doctor's note."
In contrast to Yaffe, attorney David Geffen emphasized that doctors' notes are needed only in certain circumstances.
When the disability-related needs aren't completely clear, a doctor's note helps to clarify those needs, said Geffen, a mediator in Santa Monica who also participated in the bar association's panel discussion.
But when the disability-related needs are entirely clear, requesting a doctor's note is unnecessary—and might even be perceived as harassment, Geffen said. He cites the example of a blind person who needs assistive technology, like a reader, in the workplace. In this case, a doctor's note isn't needed, he said.
Although employers need to be careful, there are situations in which requesting a doctor's note would make sense, according to Geffen. When there are several different work arrangements that could accommodate an employee, a doctor's note could help an employer decide which accommodation is best, he said.
Employers aren't required to provide all accommodations requested. They're only required to provide the ones that are necessary to accommodate a disability, and the employer gets to choose if more than one option is available, Geffen explained. In these situations, it makes sense to get a doctor's note because the company might want the doctor's input on the various possibilities, he said.
Like Geffen, attorney Christine Baran emphasized the need for doctors' notes in only some circumstances. She framed the issue as revolving around the type of accommodation requested.
If the request is something significant, then it's a good idea to get a doctor's note, according to Baran, of Fisher & Phillips in Irvine. But if it would be a "quick, easy, minimal" accommodation, a doctor's note is unnecessary, she told SHRM Online.
For instance, if the employee says he or she has eye problems and requests a lightbulb change, then there would be no need for a note, she said. But if an employee asks to work from home three days a week to obtain medical treatment, a doctor's note generally would make sense, she said.
However, Baran agreed with Geffen that if the disability-related needs are completely clear, then a doctor's note would be unnecessary. For example, if a blind employee asks to work from home three days a week to get assistance from a reader at home, there's no reason to request a note, according to Baran.
Despite her stance favoring doctors' notes, Yaffe said there are some very limited exceptions. For instance, she said that if an employee is clearly blind—if, say, the worker uses a white cane and a guide dog—then there's no need for a note. But if an employee with diabetes is going blind, for example, the employer should request a note to understand the extent of the impairment, she added.
Toni Vranjes is a freelance business writer in San Pedro, Calif.
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