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When a Doctor’s Note Doesn’t Cut It: Medical Exams after Leaves of Absence

Sometimes an employee may need to take a leave of absence from their job; the necessity may be for a variety of reasons, including a need to address physical or mental health concerns. When the employee wishes to return to work, how does an employer know if he is really ready and able to again meet the demands of the job?

Consider this scenario: an employee was going through a very messy divorce and, as a result, started taking several medications to deal with the stress. The medications had severe side effects, including mood swings, which had been noticed by coworkers for weeks. On a particularly bad day, the employee snapped and threatened several coworkers with violence. The employee was sent home for two weeks, but came back after the absence assuring everyone that he was fine. He had a note from a doctor stating that he could return to work, but everyone, including the employer, was leery of putting him back in the office environment. Can the employer ask for more than the doctor’s note?

The Americans with Disabilities Act provides that after an employee has been hired, an employer may make disability-related inquiries and require medical examinations only if they are “job-related” and “consistent with business necessity.” A medical examination is job-related and a business necessity if an employer has a “reasonable belief” that the employee’s ability to perform essential job functions will be impaired by a medical condition or that he will pose a direct threat due to a medical condition.

In the scenario given above, the employer would have a reasonable belief that employee posed a direct threat to other employees.  It is the employer’s right to ask that the returning employee submit himself to a medical exam.

Of course, such a request may be met with resistance. Employers should document the basis for their reasonable belief that an exam is needed. It would be easy for a disgruntled employee to claim a medical exam request is retaliatory in nature. As is the case anytime when dealing with an employee’s health, conversations should be confidential in nature. Employee medical exams after leaves are possible, but must be approached with care.

Preston Worley

Preston Clark Worley is an associate with McBrayer, McGinnis, Leslie & Kirkland PLLC. Mr. Worley concentrates his practice in employment law, land development, telecommunications, real estate and affordable housing. He is located in the firm’s Lexington office and can be reached atpworley@mmlk.com or at (859) 231-8780, ext. 1201.

This article is intended as a summary of  state and federal law and does not constitute legal advice.

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