Thursday, June 1, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

City Workers Lose Fight Over Doctor’s Note Policy

(CN) - An Ohio police department can force its employees to reveal some personal medical details if they take sick leave, the 6th Circuit found.

The Cincinnati-based appellate reversed a federal judge's ruling, which blocked the city of Columbus, Ohio, and its public safety director, Mitchell Brown, from enforcing a policy that required city employees to provide supervisors with a doctor's note disclosing the nature of their illnesses if they wanted to return to work following a sick leave, injury leave or restricted duty.

The mandatory disclosure policy, according to the class, violated the Rehabilitation Act and certain provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Publicizing such information could leave employees open to possible stereotyping by their bosses, according to the complaint. The class also argued that the regulations prohibit supervisors from learning confidential medical information about their employees. One of the functions of human resources department, after all, is to create a confidentiality barrier between supervisors and the workers they oversee, according to the complaint.

The District Court in Columbus granted the employees summary judgment and permanently enjoined the city from enforcing doctor's notes requirements.

In its Feb. 23 reversal, the 6th Circuit pointed out that a general inquiry into an employee's health situation does not constitute a disability witch hunt.

"First, we do not find the requirement that an employee provide a general diagnoses - or in this case, an even less specific statement regarding the 'nature' of an employees illness - to be tantamount to an inquiry 'as to whether such employee is an individual with a disability or as to the nature or severity of the disability,'" Judge Richard Allen Griffin wrote for the three-judge panel.

The lower court was misguided in classifying human resources departments as a personnel buffer, according to the ruling. "The district court has created an artificial distinction where none exists," Griffin wrote. "There is no language in either the Rehabilitation Act or the ADA that, with regard to processing of medical inquiries, differentiates between employers based on the size or organizational structure of the work force or the existence of a separate human resources department."

The lower court's decision had relied on the 2nd Circuit's Conroy v. New York State Department of Correctional Services, but Griffin wrote that the Conroy decision should not apply and has not been adopted by other sister circuits.

"By painting with such a broad brush, and finding suspect any routine or general inquiry simply because it 'may tend to reveal' an employee's disability, the Conroy court has unnecessarily swept within the statute's prohibition numerous legitimate and innocuous inquiries that are not aimed at a disability," Griffin wrote.

He added that ADA protections would have been in full force had the city asked its employees to reveal past mental problems or what medications take or have taken.

"Asking an employee returning to work to describe the 'nature' of his illness, however, is not necessarily a question about whether the employee is disabled," the decision states.

"The mere fact that an employer, pursuant to a sick-leave policy, requests a general diagnoses that may tend to lead to information about disabilities falls far short of the requisite proof that the employer is discriminating solely on the basis of disability," Griffin wrote (italics in original).

Since the policy applies to all employees, disabled or not, the ADA does not prohibit it, the court found.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.