Seventh Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment in Favor of Employer Finding That Required Mental-Health Examinations Did Not Violate the ADA

Date   Dec 14, 2017

Executive Summary: Recently, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Painter v. Illinois Department of Transportation affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the employer in a lawsuit alleging a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), finding that a reasonable jury would have to find that the two mental-health examinations at issue were “job related and consistent with business necessity.”

Background of the Case

Painter was employed as an office administrator for the Illinois Department of Transportation’s (IDOT) Division of Traffic Safety. Following employee complaints about her behavior, IDOT placed Painter on administrative leave and required her to submit to a fitness-for-duty examination by Dr. Fletcher, an occupational-medicine specialist. Dr. Fletcher concluded that Painter “could perform the essential functions of her job without posing a threat to herself or others,” but noted that she “displayed some hypomania” and “could be bipolar.” He recommended that Painter be reevaluated in 45 days. At the reevaluation examination, Dr. Fletcher opted to defer a fitness for duty recommendation until Painter could be seen by a mental-health specialist. Dr. Lee, a psychologist, examined Painter but did not provide a report to IDOT since she began treating Painter. IDOT permitted Painter to return to work, since Painter had filed a grievance, but transferred her to another division where she continued to work as an office administrator. Painter continued to have problems with co-workers in her new assignment and documented in “a log” her new “coworkers’ conversations and other actions.” Painter also sent numerous emails to her new supervisor, Stuart Hunt, who began documenting the complaints made by co-workers about Painter. Hunt gathered statements from Painter’s co-workers, disciplined Painter for keeping the log, and placed her on administrative leave.

Subsequently, IDOT retained psychiatrist Dr. Terry Killian to evaluate Painter’s mental health. Dr. Killian found that Painter was “psychiatrically fit for duty,” and cleared her to return to work. However, Dr. Killian suspected, based on the statements from Painter’s co-workers and supervisors that she “might suffer from a personality disorder.” Painter returned to work, but continued to generate complaints from co-workers. Hunt gathered additional co-worker statements and disciplined Painter on separate occasions “for being argumentative” and “for speaking to coworkers in an unprofessional tone.” As a result, Painter was again placed on administrative leave and sent back to Dr. Killian for another examination. Prior to her second examination by Dr. Killian, Painter communicated with her union representative in a threatening manner, and the Illinois state police were contacted.

Dr. Killian conducted his second examination of Painter and declared her unfit for duty “because of her ‘paranoid thinking and the highly disruptive behavior which results from her paranoia.’” Painter then filed a lawsuit against IDOT alleging that IDOT “violated the ADA by forcing her to attend unnecessary medical examinations.” The district court granted summary judgment to IDOT finding, “that the only conclusion a jury reasonably could draw is that the IDOT’s ‘actions were based on legitimate concerns and its employees reasonably responded to the situation which they encountered.’” Therefore, the district court reasoned that “jurors would have to find that Dr. Killian’s medical examinations were ‘job-related and consistent with business necessity.’” Painter appealed the district court’s ruling to the Seventh Circuit.

The Seventh Circuit’s Decision

The Seventh Circuit began its analysis by noting that the two examinations by Dr. Killian were the only examinations Painter challenged on appeal. The Court of Appeals initially noted that “[e]mployers bear the ‘quite high’ burden of establishing that compelled medical examinations are consistent with business necessity.” (citing Wright v. Ill. Dep't of Children & Family Servs., 798 F.3d 513, 523 (7th Cir. 2015)). The court also reviewed EEOC guidance, noting that a “medical examination is job related and consistent with business necessity if the employer has a reasonable belief based on objective evidence that a medical condition will impair an employee's ability to perform essential job functions or that the employee will pose a threat due to a medical condition.” (citing EEOC Enforcement Guidance: Disability-Related Inquiries and Medical Examinations of Employees under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (July 27, 2000)). While the court recognized that “annoying or inefficient [behavior] does not justify an examination” … “[p]reventing employees from endangering their coworkers is a business necessity.”

Turning to Dr. Killian’s first examination of Painter, the Court of Appeals found that evidence of Painter’s behavior from the co-worker complaints and statements compelled a finding that the examination “was job related and consistent with business necessity.” As for Dr. Killian’s second examination, the Seventh Circuit likewise concluded, based on the evidence adduced, that the examination “was job related and consistent with business necessity.” The court noted that the second examination occurred “after Painter was reprimanded for unprofessionally interacting with her coworkers.” The court further noted that Dr. Killian “reviewed an additional 160 pages of documentation … including supervisor notes, discipline directives, email communications, and statements from other employees.” The court concluded its analysis by noting that “[i]nquiries—even multiple inquiries—concerning a worker’s psychiatric health may be permissible if they reflect concern for the safety of other employees and the public at large.” Finally, the Court of Appeals rejected Painter’s other arguments, including IDOT’s failure to identify a single decision-maker for the mental-health examination decisions. On this point the court stated that there is no legal requirement “that a single decision-maker must be readily identifiable, especially when, as in this case, multiple people participated in deciding whether to compel the examination.” The Seventh Circuit concluded by affirming the district court’s order granting summary judgment to the employer.

Employers’ Bottom Line: The Seventh Circuit’s decision in Painter illustrates that employers have the right under the ADA to require employees to undergo mental-health (or physical) examinations when objective evidence gives rise to a reasonable belief that the employee cannot safely perform his/her essential job duties and/or the employee poses a safety risk to the employee or co-workers.

If you have any questions regarding this decision or other labor or employment related issues, please feel free to contact the author of this Alert, Greg Grisham, Greg is a partner in our Nashville office. Of course, you may also contact the FordHarrison attorney with whom you usually work.