Many companies have experienced situations in which employees complained of a co-worker they considered a "nut case." A recent ruling from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals illustrates these situations and provides some guidance to employers. Painter v. Illinois Department of Transportation, 2017 BL 435456 (C.A. 7, 12/6/17).
The case involved no less than five medical examinations directed by the employer. The first was directed when employees complained about the behavior of the female employee, and an occupational-medicine specialist examined the employee and concluded that she could perform the essential functions of her job without posing a threat to herself or others. He did note that she "displayed some hypomania" and "could be bipolar," so he recommended that she be re-evaluated later. The plaintiff was transferred to a different division and used work time to keep a detailed log of her new co-workers conversations and other actions. The new supervisor reacted by documenting his involvement in handling complaints about her behavior. For example, a co-worker told the supervisor that she was fearful of the plaintiff and was making other arrangements for her car pool as they both left work at the same time. The plaintiff was examined again by a psychiatrist, who concluded that plaintiff was psychiatrically fit for duty, but the statements from her co-workers and supervisors caused him to suspect she might suffer from a personality disorder.
The plaintiff again returned to work and complaints from co-workers started anew. The supervisor gathered more written statements about her behavior and forwarded them for review. Plaintiff was given a written reprimand for being argumentative and for speaking to co-workers in an unprofessional tone. The company requested another examination by the psychiatrist.
A few days later, plaintiff complained that a clock that had stopped was a conspiracy against her. When told the battery was dead, plaintiff responded, "Something’s dead, alright - however, I prefer to be a lady and not say what I think is dead." The union steward interpreted this statement as a death threat and demanded that she cease communicating with him.
Plaintiff was referred for still another examination by the psychiatrist, making it the fifth examination: two with the occupational medicine specialist, one with a psychologist obtained by Painter, and two with the psychiatrists retained by the company. This time, the psychiatrist declared Painter unfit for duty because of her "paranoid thinking and the highly disruptive behavior which results from her paranoia."
The case only dealt with two of the medical examinations. The plaintiff brought other claims in her complaint but later abandoned them, including discrimination on the basis of a real or perceived mental impairment and retaliation for filing a charge of discrimination. The district court granted summary judgment to the employer, reasoning that the employer’s action was based on legitimate concerns and its employees reasonably responded to the situation which they encountered.
The findings were upheld by the 7th Circuit, and their discussion of the issues is interesting. First, the court discussed EEOC guidance, which indicates 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. Preventing employees from endangering their co-workers is a business necessity. Employers need not retain workers who, because of a disability, might harm someone. The court noted that the psychiatrist had reviewed complaints from co-workers, including allegations that she snapped and screamed at them, gave blank stares and intimidating looks, grunted, constantly mumbled to herself, repeatedly banged drawers in her office, and had mood swings. Her co-workers also feared that she would "go postal" or "blow up at any time." After her transfer, plaintiff’s new co-workers complained that she glared and growled at them; kept a log on an hourly basis of what was going on at work; was rude, angry, abrasive, aggressive, threatening, and had mood swings. She even accused others of hostile body language.
According to the psychiatrist, the incidents contributed to his conclusion that Painter was paranoid in the psychiatric sense, which is a risk factor for violence. The court stated that inquiries, 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. Here, the court concluded that the medical examinations were based on the employer’s reasonable concern for the safety of its employees, and dismissed the claims on summary judgment.
Editor’s Note: While the Painter case follows established law, its discussion of the issues and the unique fact pattern is informative of actions the employer may take. The court rejected the claim that the employer had engaged in "doctor shopping" by subjecting the plaintiff to five medical exams. It is interesting to note that the plaintiff had received at least two acts of discipline for her behavior in the workplace, and the discipline was not challenged in this case. Perhaps the employer could have gone down the road of progressive discipline based on behavior. The employer instead adopted a very conservative approach in returning the employee to work and conducting additional medical exams where circumstances continued to raise safety concerns. The supervisor did a good job of documenting the various complaints reported by co-workers, which furnished grounds for upholding the employer’s repeated medical examinations. The court in its ruling gives employers some leeway in fitness for duty exams where complaints from workers indicate that an employee might harm someone, even if the concern is because of a disability. The EEOC in December 2016 posted to its website a publication on the job rights of employees with mental health conditions, along with a related fact sheet for mental-health-care providers. These EEOC publications detail the type of documentation a medical provider can furnish a company in evaluating a worker’s condition and address the issues of mental health conditions under the ADA. Depression, PTSD & Other Mental Health Conditions in the Workplace: Your Legal Rights, EEOL (Dec. 12, 2016).