“Tie-Breaker” Medical Exam for Employee in a Safety Sensitive Position Does Not Violate the ADA

by Gail Cohen, Esq. - Director, Employment Law And Compliance

November 09, 2020

 

A new case provides some great information for employers with employees in “safety sensitive” positions and their ability to require a medical exam. That case is Beal v. Muncie Sanitary District, available here.

The Facts


Ronald Beal worked in a Maintenance role for the Muncie Sanitary District.  His job required him to drive a District-provided vehicle over public roads to monitor equipment and operate heavy machinery.  One day, while on duty, Beal backed a District vehicle into a flower planter at a local shop. The accident did not cause any injuries or property damage, but consistent with District policy, Beal was required by his supervisor to submit to a drug test.  The test revealed the presence of a number of concerning substances, including opiates and oxycodone.  The testing lab, in providing the results to the District, warned of “possible safety issues and a quite serious liability issue in the event of an accident.” Upon receipt of the results, the District removed all “safety-sensitive” job duties from Beal’s role and reprimanded him for not complying with its policy requiring him to supply the District with a written form identifying any potentially dangerous prescriptions he was taking.

Beal’s doctor confirmed the medications he prescribed and was of the opinion that those prescriptions did not interfere with his ability to perform safety sensitive work.  The District asked its Medical Review Officer (“MRO”) for her opinion, which was, not surprisingly that unless Beal’s doctor changed his dosage and ensured these medications were not taken within eight hours of his scheduled shift, she could not clear him to return to work.   Beal’s doctor rejected the MRO’s suggestions about changing Mr. Beal’s dosage.  The District did not give up.  They then asked Beal’s doctor to clarify which duties he could perform under his current dosage, and astonishingly the doctor said he could safely perform all of them.  As a result, the District had an impasse and proposed to Beal that he agree to see a third party health care provider and sign a release so that individual could review his medical records.  When he refused to do so, he was suspended without pay and given an ultimatum: participate in the exam and sign the medical release, or lose your job.  Beal declined to agree and was fired for insubordination.  He sued the District, claiming that its requirement that he participate in a medical exam with a third party provider violated the ADA.

How the District Won

The ADA has specific limits on when an employer can require an employee to submit to a medical exam; namely, the exam must be job-related and consistent with business necessity.  One way for employers to meet these criteria is by showing that the employer has a reasonable belief, based on objective evidence, that the employee’s medical condition would impair his ability to perform the essential functions of his job.  The court agreed that without the safety sensitive duties the District temporarily removed from Beal’s job, his position was “diluted beyond recognition.” There was ample support that the drugs Beal’s physician prescribed could impair his ability to perform his job functions, so, when he was asked to submit to the medical exam, the District was found to have complied with the ADA’s requirements for medical exams. 

Though the District didn’t submit this argument, the court further pointed out that an employer can ask an employee to submit to a medical exam when there is objective evidence that his or her condition poses a threat to health and safety.  In this instance, the evidence showed that Beal’s use of prescription opiates and other medications posed a threat to himself, co-workers, and the general public.  The court found that, under the circumstances, the District was not only warranted in requiring the third party exam, but was actually obligated to require Beal to submit to it.

Pings for Employers:

The District did a lot of things right, including:

  • Having a detailed job description from which the court could easily conclude that Beal’s position involved safety sensitive duties;
  • Having a policy that required the employee to come forward if he takes any medications that could impair or otherwise impact job performance.This is something a private employer, however, should think very carefully about before requiring, as it will be the rare position indeed that would warrant such scrutiny.
  • Having a policy that required drug testing in the event of a work-related accident and methods to objectively administer that testing with a third party provider.
  • Using an internal resource – in this instance a Medical Review Officer – who was familiar with the job duties and the medications at issue.The MRO helped a lot. She helped devise ways to work with Beal’s doctor to see if there were ways to accommodate his use of the prescribed medications and still perform his job.
  • The third party medical exam really was a last resort. This employer worked hard to be thoughtful and find ways to work with Beal and his provider. The court gave the District lots of credit for that and ultimately concluded that Beal’s recalcitrance demonstrated a failure to engage in the interactive process.
MATRIX CAN HELP!  Matrix’s start-to-finish ADA Advantage management services can help you wrangle with tough issues like obtaining appropriate medical information to assess an employee’s ADA situation.  You always retain the final decision whether and how to accommodate, but we manage the intake, medical assessment, interactive process, recordkeeping, follow-up, and more.  Our expert team of ADA Specialists is at the ready with practical advice and expert guidance.  To learn more, contact your Matrix or Reliance Standard account manager, or send an email to ping@matrixcos.com.