Sometimes when an employee returns from medical leave and presents a doctor’s clearance, the employer has serious questions about the employee’s actual ability to safely and effectively perform the job. A recent unpublished decision from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals confirms that employers can look further into the employee’s capabilities despite the doctor’s information.
In Mitchell v. U.S. Postal Service, the plaintiff took a number of medical leaves due to depression. After his last leave, he presented the USPS with a doctor’s note clearing him to return to work without restriction. However, around the same time, the plaintiff’s wife had written the Postal Service a letter questioning her husband’s stability and the effect of his medical condition on his ability to return to work. As a result, the USPS delayed the plaintiff’s return to work while it assessed the situation. Ultimately the employer asked for updated medical information that took into account the wife’s letter. The plaintiff refused and was eventually terminated. He filed an EEOC charge and sued under the Rehabilitation Act (which is interpreted similarly to the ADA), claiming that the USPS terminated him based on his disability.
The Sixth Circuit affirmed dismissal of the suit on summary judgment. The court likened the Postal Service’s request to a medical inquiry or examination. The employer had a legitimate business reason for following up on the inconsistencies between the doctor’s note and the wife’s letter. Therefore, the delay in returning him to work did not constitute evidence of discrimination.
Employers should be careful about simply discarding an employee’s doctor’s assessment of his or her condition. Before requiring that the employee provide additional medical information, the employer should have a legitimate, documented reason for the request. Uneasy feelings or amateur medical diagnoses are not enough to meet this standard. However, when as in this case, the employer has legitimate grounds to question the medical opinion provided by the employee’s doctor, it can take reasonable steps to address these concerns before reinstating the employee.