|March 13, 2012|
Illinois Federal Court Sides With Circuits Allowing Non-Disabled Individuals to Bring ADA Claims
An Illinois federal court recently decided that it could be unreasonable for an employer to require an employee take a mental health exam as a condition of keeping his job, and allowed a former employee's claim to proceed to trial. Sanders v. Illinois Dept. of Central Management Services, 2012 WL549325 (C.D.Ill. Feb. 21, 2012).
The Illinois Department of Central Management Services (the "Department") employed Michael Sanders as a data processing technician. In 2005, Mr. Sanders was disciplined with suspension for various infractions including not following procedures, leaving his work station and sending an email to his supervisor, Victor Puckett, accusing him of being racist and needing mental health treatment. Thereafter, on August 26, 2005, Mr. Sanders accused Mr. Puckett of screaming, cursing and threatening to throw him out the window during a work dispute, which Mr. Puckett disputed. Mr. Sanders was disciplined for the August 26 incident. On September 9, 2005, the union representative at the pre-disciplinary hearing relating to the August 26 incident notified the Department that Mr. Sanders had threatened to harm Mr. Puckett (which Mr. Sanders disputed).
The Discharge Decision
Thereafter, the Department placed Mr. Sanders on administrative leave and directed him to undergo an independent psychological evaluation, but Mr. Sanders did not attend any of the three appointments made for him. The Department initially terminated Mr. Sanders on November 23, 2005 for not undergoing the psychological exam, but voluntarily reinstated him and placed him on administrative leave effective February 1, 2006. During his leave, the Department made additional appointments for him to undergo an independent psychological evaluation, but Mr. Sanders did not attend any of them.
In January, 2007, the Office of Executive Inspector General ("OEIG") determined that there was no evidence that Mr. Sanders violated Department rules during the August 26, 2005 incident. The Department scheduled another appointment for an independent psychological evaluation on September 5, 2007. Mr. Sanders sent two memos to the doctor who was to examine him, threatening to take legal action, disciplinary action and contact the media if the doctor did not cancel the appointment.
Mr. Sanders was discharged for refusing to undergo the independent psychological examination. He appealed his termination to the Illinois Civil Service Commission. The Commission found that it was not reasonable for the Department to require Mr. Sanders to submit to an independent psychological examination, and the Department's decision to discharge Mr. Sanders was unsupported, based on a number of factors including that the Department had not interviewed Mr. Sanders to obtain his version of events relating to the alleged incidents, and also that, according to the Commission, there was no "credible evidence" that Mr. Sanders had threatened Mr. Puckett. The Department's appeals of that decision to the Commission and the circuit court were denied.
The ADA Suit
Thereafter, Mr. Sanders filed suit against the Department in Illinois federal court alleging violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"). The court allowed Mr. Sanders' suit to proceed to trial on the question of whether Mr. Sanders' discharge for refusal to undergo a psychological examination violated the ADA. The court noted that an employer's demand that an employee submit to a medical exam may be permissible if the employer has a reasonable belief that the employee's ability to perform essential job functions is impaired by, or the employee poses a direct threat due to, a medical condition. Here, however, the court focused on the OEIG's finding that there was no evidence that Mr. Sanders violated the Department's rules during the August 26, 2005 incident, and held that a jury should decide if it was reasonable for the Department to continue to schedule the psychological exams for Mr. Sanders after the OEIG's determination. The court also noted that what may be reasonable in some employment settings, such as law enforcement or school personnel, may not be reasonable in others.
The case is significant because the district court in this case joined a number of federal circuit courts that allow a non-disabled individual to bring suit under the ADA, including the U.S. Courts of Appeal for the Ninth and Tenth Circuits. The Seventh Circuit has not ruled on the issue. Here, the court did not even consider the question of whether the plaintiff was a qualified individual with a disability under the ADA.
The case reinforces that any request for a physical or mental examination must be carefully examined for necessity and job-relatedness. It also highlights the importance of conducting thorough investigations into alleged instances of misconduct before taking any employment actions. Employers with questions regarding medical or psychological examinations may contact any of our attorneys in the Labor and Employment Group.
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