Employers Must Be Careful Before Concluding That An Employee's Condition Presents A "Direct Threat" To The Safety Of The Employee Or Others

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In EEOC v. Rexnord Industries, LLC, a federal district court in Milwaukee held that a jury must decide whether Rexnord properly discharged the plaintiff, a manufacturing plant assembler, based on a company doctor’s determination that she had an active seizure disorder which created a safety risk. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not protect an employee whose condition presents a direct threat to the health or safety of the employee or others. This determination must be based on a reasonable medical judgment that relies on the most current medical knowledge and/or on the best available objective evidence. In Rexnord, the EEOC successfully fended off the employer’s summary judgment motion by presenting an expert witness who opined that the company’s doctor relied on an improper methodology in diagnosing the plaintiff. The court, therefore, held that a trial was necessary to determine whether Rexnord’s decision was objectively reasonable in light of the available medical evidence. Employers should consider not relying solely on the opinion of their physicians in making direct threat assessments; rather, they should also consider soliciting the opinion of the employee’s own physician. If there is a conflict between the employer's and the employee's physicians,  employers should consider seeking an independent third party physician agreeable to both the employee and the employer to resolve the conflict. While this may, in the short run, take more time and result in increased costs, it is far less costly and less time-consuming than defending against a federal court action by the employee or the EEOC.


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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