Under the provisions of the American with Disabilities Act, after a conditional employment offer is made, an employee may be required to either go through a physical examination or complete a health information form. In a recent unpublished decision in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, in Reilly v. Lehigh Valley Hospital, the court examined an employer’s termination of an employee after it determined that employee had falsified certain answers on a health information form.
The two questions on the form inquired as to whether plaintiff had ever been “recognized or diagnosed with alcoholism or drug addiction” and asked “have you ever been or are you now being treated for alcoholism or drug addiction?” The plaintiff answered “no” to those questions then left blank a follow-up inquiry requesting specification of the type of treatment received. However, after he was hired, during the course of receiving emergency treatment at the Hospital (where he was employed) for an eye injury, the plaintiff disclosed to the physician in the Hospital’s ER that he had a history of narcotics use and was a recovering drug addict. The Hospital’s Health Services Department notified the Hospital’s Human Resources Department of the plaintiff’s admission and his employment was terminated.
In a deposition, the plaintiff explained that he did not consider himself to have received addiction treatment because no change occurred in his substance abuse behavior. He stated that his time in the treatment program was simply fulfillment of a requirement of the state, and nothing more.
In granting summary judgment to the employer, the court concluded that the plaintiff’s belief that he answered the pertinent inquiries truthfully wasn’t the determinative factor, and that the real question was whether the employer could regard his responses as dishonest. The court answered with a resounding “yes.” The court noted that the undisputed evidence established that the plaintiff received 40 hours of drug and alcohol addiction treatment and that he still attended AA meetings. The court concluded that the plaintiff could not prove his employer’s reason for the discharge, namely his dishonest completion of the health form, was pretextual and thus could not prove that discrimination on account of a disability was the real reason for his discharge.
Significantly, the plaintiff did not raise the issue as to whether the transmission of his medical records from the ER to the Human Resources Department, by itself, violated the ADA. Had that allegation been made, the outcome of the lawsuit may have been different.
The decision provides two lessons for employers: First, even though it appears an employee may be disabled or may have a history of a disability, the employer may still enforce a standard of honesty with respect to the completion of paperwork, including health care forms. Second, health care providers, including some companies with in-house nursing, must be careful to shield medical information from improper transmission to other departments, such as Human Resources.