On April 18, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia) affirmed a lower court’s grant of summary judgment to an employer and confirmed the employer’s ability to make medical inquiries of an employee when engaging in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) interactive process.
In Lashley v. Spartanburg Methodist College, the plaintiff had lupus, asthma, post-traumatic stress disorder, Crohn’s disease, and other gastrointestinal issues. She signed a contract to teach at the college. At some point during her employment, the plaintiff said that she discovered mold in her office and claimed that it exacerbated her asthma. She had told faculty, staff, and students at SMC about her various health issues, usually in the context of missing or rescheduling classes. She even told colleagues that all of this was due to the “unhealthy conditions” in her office building – referring to the mold.
The plaintiff brought these concerns to her dean, who allegedly became angry and stated, “Tell me about your health issues.” She told the dean about her various medical conditions, and he offered to move her to a different building – which the plaintiff rejected. One of the questions before the Fourth Circuit was whether the dean made an unlawful medical inquiry, thereby violating the ADA.
The ADA provides that an employer “shall not make inquiries of an employee as to whether such employee is an individual with a disability or as to the nature or severity of the disability unless such examination or inquiry is shown to be job-related and consistent with business necessity.” This request must not be broader or more intrusive than necessary.
The Fourth Circuit held that even if the plaintiff perceived the dean’s question as rude, angry, or mean, this perception was immaterial. The court takes an objective – not subjective – approach to determine whether the examination or inquiry is job-related and consistent with business necessity. The college met this standard because the dean reasonably believed that the plaintiff’s medical conditions impaired her ability to perform the essential functions of her job, based on her numerous communications to her colleagues and students about missing class due to the unhealthy conditions of the office building.
Whenever an employer is met with a reasonable accommodation request from an employee, the employer has the discretion to ask questions that relate to the employee’s medical condition that may be impacting the employee’s ability to perform the essential functions of the position. These questions should be limited to determining what accommodations, if any, may be available to the employee and should not be broader than necessary. The employer should usually ask the employee’s healthcare provider to confirm this information and not rely on the employee’s description of their condition. While the Fourth Circuit permitted the dean, in this case, to ask, “Tell me about your health issues,” we recommend that the questions be more limited in scope and directly tied to information already known by the employer. In most situations, HR, and not the employee’s supervisor, should be the one asking these questions.