The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits employers from requiring employees to submit to medical examinations in the absence of business necessity. In an unpublished decision released last month, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North Carolina and South Carolina) concluded that a university president had the authority to require a mental fitness exam for a professor despite a faculty grievance committee’s conclusion that there were not sufficient grounds to take disciplinary action against him.
In Coursey v. Univ. of Md. E. Shore, a number of students and faculty members complained that the plaintiff was acting in an erratic and hostile manner, yelling at students and acting inappropriately toward female staff. He was suspended by the university, but a faculty grievance committee concluded that there were not adequate grounds to continue the suspension. Despite this conclusion, the university president conditioned reinstatement upon the plaintiff’s submitting to a mental fitness examination. He refused, and sued under the ADA after being terminated for insubordination.
The plaintiff claimed that the faculty committee’s decision demonstrated that the president did not have business necessity for requiring the medical examination. The Fourth Circuit disagreed, noting the extensive reports and complaints detailing the plaintiff’s behavior toward students and staff. The president had the ultimate authority to make decisions regarding faculty disciplinary matters and ability to perform job functions.
Employees who display erratic workplace behavior are often resistant to employer attempts to seek mental health examinations. In many cases, employers may be better advised to focus on the behavior and not the possible causes for it in order to avoid being accused of regarding the employee as mentally disabled. However, for employers such as colleges and universities that have detailed procedures for discipline and discharge of employees, termination in the absence of a thorough review of the circumstances and their possible causes may not be possible. In these situations, federal courts grant employers significant leeway under the ADA to require medical reviews to determine the basis for an employee’s behavior, and possible steps that can be taken to address such behavior.