The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) limits an employer’s right to require a current employee to provide information about his medical conditions. Only in situations where the need to obtain such health information is necessary to determine whether the employee can perform the job functions and do so in a safe manner is the medical inquiry lawful. The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals (whose decisions apply to employers in Virginia) recently examined what that means in practice. In a unanimous opinion, the appeals court sided with a railroad, saying it complied with ADA requirements when it asked a train engineer to provide information about his controlled substance use after a positive drug test.
Michael Coffey had been a train engineer for Norfolk Southern Railway Co. for almost 20 years when a post-accident drug test revealed signs of amphetamines and codeine. He said the drugs had been lawfully prescribed for his bad back and ADHD, and he provided the Norfolk Southern with over 400 pages of medical documentation. Specific information about the medications’ interactions and their effects on his ability to do his job, however, wasn’t addressed in the records he provided.
Accordingly, Norfolk Southern asked Coffey to provide information about the medications’ side effects, any reactions between them and any others he was taking, and whether his doctors had concluded he could perform all of his duties when taking them. When he refused to do so, he was terminated.
Coffey filed suit in federal district court in Richmond, claiming Norfolk Southern had violated the ADA by unlawfully demanding the additional medical information. The district court dismissed his lawsuit, finding the railroad’s medical requests were permissible under the ADA.
The court explained the railroad had an objectively reasonable basis to believe Coffey couldn’t properly carry out his duties and that he posed a safety risk. Additionally, the court said the railroad’s medical requests were consistent with business necessity because it was required by federal safety regulations to inquire into the use of controlled substances by its employees.
4th Circuit’s Decision
Coffey appealed the dismissal to the 4th Circuit. But the appeals court affirmed the district court’s ruling. In its opinion, the circuit court provided a lengthy narrative setting forth the history of railroads in the U.S. and the potential substantial harm (then, as well as presently) for litigation and liability were a train engineer not fit to keep the train from derailing or causing other types of accidents. The court emphasized the importance of the safety regulations of the Federal Railroad Administration, which were enacted to protect the public and the railroad and required that a railroad take steps to ensure its personnel could do their tasks in a safe manner.
Given the safety obligations, the 4th Circuit held that “in requesting medical records from [Coffey], Norfolk Southern was fulfilling its regulatory obligation to investigate his drug usage with due diligence. Were a failure to investigate to cause a train wreck, Norfolk Southern would be told under the unremitting glare of hindsight of all it should have done.” Coffey v. Norfolk Southern Ry. Co., No. 21-1248 (4th Cir. Jan. 14, 2022).
ADA: Safety First
Like the train engineer in the Grateful Dead song “Casey Jones,” who was high on a controlled substance (cocaine), there was “trouble ahead and trouble behind” for Norfolk Southern, especially if it didn’t investigate the impact of Coffey’s medications on his ability to do his job. The 4th Circuit rightly recognized an employer isn’t required by the ADA to ignore its safety and regulatory obligations, and that the ADA may not be used by an employee as a shield against an employer’s reasonable medical inquiries, particularly when safety issues are involved.
Mike Lieberman is a partner at DiMuroGinsberg, P.C., in Alexandria, Virginia. If you have any questions about the case or its implications for your operations, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.