It is clear under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that, in certain situations, an employer is entitled to seek additional medical documentation regarding the nature of an employee’s restriction and their need for accommodation. However, employers making a request for such information must be wary of crossing the line so that their request does not constitute interference with the employee’s rights under the ADA.
In a recent decision in Hafermann v. Wisconsin Department of Corrections, a federal district court in Wisconsin examined the employer’s treatment of an employee who had informed them he could not work the third shift because of severe sleep apnea and cardiac problems. The employee had submitted a letter from a nurse practitioner stating that the night shift was a known risk factor for individuals with sleep apnea and, in particular, those with cardiac health conditions. The employer then requested more information from the healthcare providers. Although the employee had been temporarily assigned to work first and second shifts, he was then reassigned back to the third shift. He returned the employer’s questionnaire in which the healthcare provider stated that he needed time to adapt to sleeping during the day and that the duration of his impairment was unknown. It was emphasized that the employee needed to work the day shift. The employer then again requested further information and refused to assign the employee to a vacant first shift position. The employee resigned. He filed suit under the Rehabilitation Act, rather than the ADA, although the principles governing both laws are substantially similar.
In the lawsuit the employer first argued that Plaintiff was not an individual with a disability. The Court brushed that argument aside pointing out that to prove disability a Plaintiff need only show a substantial limitation on a major life activity, not that he is unable to work.
The employer then argued that the information from the healthcare providers failed to show that the employee needed a requested accommodation in order to perform his job. The Court viewed the information provided by the healthcare provider and found no reason to question the conclusion that the employee should not be working the night shift due to his disability.
Finally, when the employer contended that the letters from the healthcare providers did not clearly explain why the disabilities prevented him from working the third shift, the Court noted that such an argument raised the question of the extent to which an employer is entitled to demand information to support the conclusion that an employee needs an accommodation. The Court pointed out that the employer did not tell the employee what it believed was insufficient about the information submitted by the healthcare provider or even to specify what additional information was necessary. It pointed out that the employer had only asked general questions in its supplemental questionnaire regarding the nature of the disability. The Court concluded that a reasonable jury could find that by failing to provide that information, the employer caused a breakdown in the required interactive process.
The holding in Hafermann sheds light on an employer’s obligation when seeking follow-up information about a potential disability and accommodation from its employees. First, the employer has an obligation to inform employees of the specific insufficiencies in the information provided by the healthcare provider. Second, and at the same time, it should point out to the employee and; obviously, to the healthcare provider at the same time, the specific nature of the additional information it believes to be necessary. Simply making generalized inquiries to the employee and the healthcare provider to provide more information will not be sufficient and, indeed, could lead it directly to a finding of interference with the employee’s rights under either the Rehabilitation Act or, impliedly, the ADA. Clearly, the Court concluded that transparency in the employer’s activity was absent, and led to the inference that the employee’s rights under the Act had been interfered with.