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Fourth Circuit Says Employee Bound by Doctor's Restrictions Despite Her Disagreement

    Client Alerts
  • March 29, 2013

Employers sometimes face situations where an employee presents medical restrictions with which he or she disagrees. The employees claim that their physician is overcautious and that they are able to do more than indicated in the release. In an unpublished decision issued last month, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North Carolina and South Carolina) concluded that employers are not required to look beyond physician restrictions when making accommodation decisions under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Wulff v. Sentara Healthcare, Inc. involved a nurse who was originally placed on lifting restrictions of no more than ten pounds with one arm. The employer accommodated these restrictions, but a subsequent visit to the doctor resulted in a note checking a box providing for a total ban on lifting. The employer concluded that it could not accommodate this level of restriction, and placed the employee on medical leave until the restriction was lifted. She sued, claiming failure to accommodate under the ADA.

The plaintiff did not claim that the employer failed to provide accommodation of the total lifting restriction. Instead, she alleged that the restriction was overly broad, and that the hospital refused to look beyond it in making its decision to place her on leave. The Fourth Circuit disagreed, affirming summary judgment for the employer.

In its opinion, the court made two points: First, it was the employee's obligation to take up the issue of the restrictions with her doctor. She never did so. Second, under the ADA, employers are entitled to rely on the employee's physician's opinions. The Fourth Circuit refused to give credence to the plaintiff's assertions that her employer knew or should have known that the restrictions were inaccurate.

One could imagine a scenario where the doctor's restrictions are clearly mistaken or so erroneous as to prompt the employer to make additional inquiries. Outside of these extreme cases, however, employers are not responsible for resolving differences of opinion between employees and their doctors as to their medical capabilities. Employers should not ignore medical work restrictions and allow the employee to perform activities contrary to such objections if for no reason other than to avoid potential workplace injury and claims based upon such injury.