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Fitness-For-Duty Exams: Court OKs Them Even If Injured Workers Return With No Restrictions; Procedures To Implement Now

 

Suppose you have an employee who is off work because of an injury. When the employee’s doctor gives them the green light to return without limitations, you may still be concerned that the person cannot do their job properly. So you ask the worker to first undergo a fitness-for-duty evaluation.

If the employee refuses, claiming the test is illegal under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), what are your options? A new case provides some answers.

Employee Balks

Raymond Porter worked as a machine operator for United States Alumoweld Co. for three years. Porter suffered several on-the-job back injuries and made numerous workers’ compensation claims.

While on leave for work-related back surgery, the company notified him that before he could return to work, he had to provide documentation from his doctors confirming he was able to perform his job functions.

His surgeon sent Alumoweld a brief note stating Porter could return to work safely without any limitations. Alumoweld told Porter it needed more information, including an examination of his functional capacity. When Porter refused to furnish the information, Alumoweld fired him.

Porter sued. He charged that Alumoweld violated the ADA by terminating him for not providing the additional information. Alumoweld argued that it had the right to demand details about Porter’s fitness for duty before allowing him to return.

Fitness-For-Duty Exam OK

The federal Court of Appeal noted that the ADA permits you to require medical examinations, including fitness-for-duty exams, when you need to determine whether a worker can still do the essential functions of the position.

The court explained that Porter’s job required lifting and pulling and he had problems carrying out his duties even before the surgery. Therefore, Alumoweld had the right to demand the evaluation, and it did not violate the ADA by discharging Porter for refusing to comply.

What You Can Do

This decision makes clear that you have the right to obtain details about an employee’s ability to do their job even if their doctor says they can return with no restrictions.

If you choose, you can send the employee to a doctor or medical professional you know to do the evaluation. You may have more confidence in that expert’s assessment because they may be familiar with your require- ments and policies. You can also insist that the employee provide you with medical reports confirming that they can perform the essential job duties.

You can take the following steps to help ensure your request for a fitness-for-duty evaluation is legal:

 

  1. Limit the extent of the request. The scope of the requested information or examination must be limited to whether the person can perform the essential job functions or needs a reasonable accommodation.
  2. Always use job descriptions. When requesting a fitness-for-duty evaluation, provide the medical practitioner with a detailed job description or have the employee give it to their own doctor. Ask the expert to simply report whether the employee can or cannot perform all the essential job functions or what reasonable accommodation might be required.
  3. Don’t block return based on fear of reinjury. In some cases-especially those involving back injuries-employers are reluctant to return employees to work because they fear an increased possibility of reinjury, resulting in additional workers’ comp claims. However, it’s illegal to refuse to allow a worker to come back simply because you be- lieve they have a heightened risk of injury. You do have the right to keep a worker from returning if they pose a direct threat to their own or others’ health and safety and the risk of harm can’t be eliminated through a reasonable accommodation.
  4. Develop a policy for fitness exams. Be sure to have a policy that puts employees on notice that you reserve the right to request fitness-for-duty exams. Also, keep all medical information strictly confidential.