California Labor &
Employment Law Blog

Aug. 3 2010

Requiring Fitness for Duty Exam for Erratic Behavior Did Not Violate ADA

Topics: Court Decisions, Discrimination, Harassment & Retaliation

In Brownfield v. City of Yakima, the Ninth Circuit held that the City did not violate the ADA by requiring a police officer employee to undergo a fitness for duty exam following several incidents of erratic behavior by the employee. The police officer in question had sustained a head injury causing him to be out of work for some time before being fully released to work. He returned to duty and worked for three years essentially without incident and received positive performance reviews. The following year, he had several incidents involving confrontations with co-workers and/or others during which he was visibly angry. He also told a co-worker he was so angry during a traffic stop that at the time he did not know what he was going to do. Based on these incidents, the City required the officer to undergo a fitness for duty exam. The exam resulted in a reported finding that the officer was not fit for police duty due to disability and that the disability was permanent. The officer's employment was ultimately terminated. He filed suit for, among other things, violation of the ADA.

The question before the Ninth Circuit was whether the City violated the ADA by requiring the officer to undergo a fitness for duty exam prior to the officer having any real performance problems. The court held that an employer does not have to wait until an employee's work performance declines before requiring a fitness for duty exam "if the employer is faced with significant evidence that could cause a reasonable person to inquire as to whether the employee is still capable of performing his job." The court cautioned that the employee's behavior cannot be merely annoying or inefficient. Rather, there must be objective evidence leading the employer to reasonably believe that the employee may not be capable of performing his job duties. In this case, the repeated instances of erratic behavior and angry outbursts by the officer were sufficient to lead the City to have such a belief even in the absence of specific performance problems on the part of the officer.

Employers should use caution when requiring "prophylactic" fitness for duty exams of employees. To pass muster under the ADA, a fitness for duty exam must be based on a showing of business necessity and it is always the employer's burden of proving business necessity.

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About the Editor

Robin Largent has a regular presence in California state and federal courts and has been lead defense counsel and appellate counsel for large and small California employers in litigation (and arbitration) ranging from individual discrimination and harassment claims to complex wage and hour representative and class actions. She also leads the firm’s appellate practice, having substantial experience and success handling appeals, writ petitions, and amicus briefs in both state and federal court on issues such as class certification (particularly in the wage and hour arena), manageability and due process concerns associated with class action trials, exempt/non-exempt misclassification issues, meal and rest break compliance, trade secret/unfair competition matters, and the scope of federal court jurisdiction under the Class Action Fairness Act.
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