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Fourth Circuit Says Employer Justified in Requiring Fitness-for-Duty Evaluation for Chronic Complainer

    Client Alerts
  • May 26, 2020

The Americans with Disabilities Act restricts employers’ ability to require employee medical evaluations to situations where such exams are job related and consistent with business necessity. This month, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia) rejected an ADA claim from an employee who was required to submit to a fitness-for-duty evaluation after submitting multiple baseless grievances regarding his treatment by the employer.

In Johnson v. Old Dominion University, the plaintiff was an African-American IT specialist who filed a grievance after being placed on a performance improvement plan. The university reviewed the complaint and deemed it meritless. Over the next several years, the plaintiff filed multiple additional grievances and document requests claiming that he was being singled out due to his race. When these complaints were investigated and found to be meritless, he challenged the results of the grievance process, alleging forgery of documents. The plaintiff also became increasingly combative with his supervisor, challenging and disputing any comments made regarding his work or behavior.

As a result of these circumstances, the university requested a fitness-for-duty evaluation. The plaintiff ignored three such requests and was terminated following a fourth refusal to submit to the evaluation. He filed suit, claiming race discrimination, retaliation, and violation of the ADA’s medical examination requirements. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed dismissal of the claims. The court noted the plaintiff’s increasingly disruptive and irrational behavior as justifying the medical evaluation, even if some of this behavior related to complaints made by him through the university’s grievance process.

Of course, employers should not react to routine employee complaints by sending them for psychological evaluations. However, when the employee’s response to routine counseling and disciplinary actions becomes objectively irrational, or if the employee appears impaired in terms of his or her ability to communicate with the employer, a fitness-for-duty evaluation may be merited. Employers encountering these circumstance should carefully document the business reasons supporting their decision to require such medical evaluation.