Court rules employee’s behavior justified mental health exam

by McAfee & Taft

McAfee & Taft

There is a needed focus on mental health issues these days. We see it on social media as well as in the news.  And, as a nation, we are hopefully moving to a place were individuals can get the help they need without any stigma attached.  This is true in the employment context as well. Even though many employers offer benefits such as employee assistant programs (EAPs) that allow employees to access mental health services, mental health is still a difficult issue to address. It becomes even more difficult in the workplace. This is particularly true when there are complaints about an employee’s behavior or performance that suggest a potential mental health issue, but an employee either does not believe they need treatment or refuses to get it. Employers walk a fine line between violating the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and protecting their workforce and the public. A federal appeals court, however, recently gave helpful guidance to employers on how to deal with that situation.

Bizarre behavior by employee

Deanna Painter worked as an office administrator for the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT). For several years, co-workers complained about her unusual behavior. For instance, Painter would keep a detailed log of her co-workers’ comments and actions throughout the workday, almost on an hourly basis. She also made a bizarre statement to a union representative that he took as a threat. As a result, IDOT required her to have five medical mental health examinations over the course of her employment.

Early evaluations were either inconclusive or declared Painter fit for duty even though the doctor expressed concerns that she might have a personality disorder. Each time after she was put back to work, her unusual behavior continued. In fact, two months after she returned to work from administrative leave, her co-workers made written complaints to her supervisor, stating that they feared Painter would “go postal” or “blow up at any time.”  Her supervisor documented her disruptive behavior, and Painter was placed on paid administrative leave again and required to undergo her fifth mental health evaluation. This time, the psychiatrist determined that Painter was unfit for duty because of disruptive behavior resulting from paranoia.

Painter sued IDOT, arguing that the medical evaluations were unnecessary and illegal under the ADA. The employer disagreed and contended the evaluations were job-related and consistent with business necessity. The trial and appeals courts both agreed that IDOT had acted properly in requiring Painter to undergo another psychiatric evaluation and found in favor of the employer.

The ADA requirements and the court’s reasoning

The ADA does not allow employers to require medical examinations – either physical or mental – of current employees unless the examination is job-related and consistent with business necessity. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued guidance on complying with this limitation. According to the EEOC,  an evaluation is proper if the employer has a reasonable belief based on objective evidence that a medical condition will impair an employee’s ability to perform essential job functions or that the employee will pose a threat due to their  medical condition. Courts have ruled that this means employers may not require medical evaluations merely to address annoying or inefficient work. Similarly, courts have routinely held that the employer must be able to provide evidence that it was reasonable for the employer to formally inquire whether the employee was still capable of performing the job or has the capacity to perform his or her job.

Fortunately, in Painter, the court agreed that the employee’s behavior justified the mental health exams. It concluded, “Inquiries—even multiple inquiries—concerning a worker’s psychiatric health may be permissible if they reflect concern for the safety of other employees and the public at large.” Significant to the court was that IDOT had more than 160 pages of supervisor notes, discipline directives, email communications, and statements from employees complaining of Painter’s behavior. Moreover, the court was persuaded that IDOT was not “shopping around” for a doctor’s opinion that it wanted. Indeed, it was important that IDOT sent her back to the same psychiatrist that declared her fit for duty after her behavior continued.

Takeaways for Employers

There are several lessons to be learned from Painter for employers seeking to address an employee’s potential mental health issues. The first is that an employer’s hands are not tied. Employers may act when they observe concerning behavior. Indeed, not acting when an employer believes an employee could be a risk to co-workers or the public may subject an employer to liability. Second, employers, as always, should document what they see and, if co-workers complain, to ask for written statements. Third, an employer must consider the employee’s behavior and analyze the risks it may impose. Suppose, for instance, an employee started being habitually late but is otherwise not acting unusual.  While this could potentially be caused by mental health issues or many other reasons, there is no real risk to the public or co-workers. Thus, requiring a mental health evaluation may not be appropriate. In Painter, it was key that co-workers took the employee’s comments and behavior as threatening. Fourth, do not ignore ongoing situations. The court made it clear that IDOT was allowed to keep sending the employee for evaluations when her alarming behavior continued. Employers should not assume that they can ignore continued bizarre behavior or threats because an employee is previously released to work. Finally, seek counsel. When employers are dealing with the ADA, they also may deal with other complicated laws such as the Family and Medical Leave Act.  Seeking legal guidance on how to walk a tight rope of compliance is critical.

  • Painter v. Illinois Dept. of Transportation, No. 16-3187 (7th Cir. 12/6/17)

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.

© McAfee & Taft | Attorney Advertising

Written by:

McAfee & Taft

McAfee & Taft on:

Readers' Choice 2017
Reporters on Deadline

"My best business intelligence, in one easy email…"

Your first step to building a free, personalized, morning email brief covering pertinent authors and topics on JD Supra:
Sign up using*

Already signed up? Log in here

*By using the service, you signify your acceptance of JD Supra's Privacy Policy.
Custom Email Digest
Privacy Policy (Updated: October 8, 2015):

JD Supra provides users with access to its legal industry publishing services (the "Service") through its website (the "Website") as well as through other sources. Our policies with regard to data collection and use of personal information of users of the Service, regardless of the manner in which users access the Service, and visitors to the Website are set forth in this statement ("Policy"). By using the Service, you signify your acceptance of this Policy.

Information Collection and Use by JD Supra

JD Supra collects users' names, companies, titles, e-mail address and industry. JD Supra also tracks the pages that users visit, logs IP addresses and aggregates non-personally identifiable user data and browser type. This data is gathered using cookies and other technologies.

The information and data collected is used to authenticate users and to send notifications relating to the Service, including email alerts to which users have subscribed; to manage the Service and Website, to improve the Service and to customize the user's experience. This information is also provided to the authors of the content to give them insight into their readership and help them to improve their content, so that it is most useful for our users.

JD Supra does not sell, rent or otherwise provide your details to third parties, other than to the authors of the content on JD Supra.

If you prefer not to enable cookies, you may change your browser settings to disable cookies; however, please note that rejecting cookies while visiting the Website may result in certain parts of the Website not operating correctly or as efficiently as if cookies were allowed.

Email Choice/Opt-out

Users who opt in to receive emails may choose to no longer receive e-mail updates and newsletters by selecting the "opt-out of future email" option in the email they receive from JD Supra or in their JD Supra account management screen.


JD Supra takes reasonable precautions to insure that user information is kept private. We restrict access to user information to those individuals who reasonably need access to perform their job functions, such as our third party email service, customer service personnel and technical staff. However, please note that no method of transmitting or storing data is completely secure and we cannot guarantee the security of user information. Unauthorized entry or use, hardware or software failure, and other factors may compromise the security of user information at any time.

If you have reason to believe that your interaction with us is no longer secure, you must immediately notify us of the problem by contacting us at In the unlikely event that we believe that the security of your user information in our possession or control may have been compromised, we may seek to notify you of that development and, if so, will endeavor to do so as promptly as practicable under the circumstances.

Sharing and Disclosure of Information JD Supra Collects

Except as otherwise described in this privacy statement, JD Supra will not disclose personal information to any third party unless we believe that disclosure is necessary to: (1) comply with applicable laws; (2) respond to governmental inquiries or requests; (3) comply with valid legal process; (4) protect the rights, privacy, safety or property of JD Supra, users of the Service, Website visitors or the public; (5) permit us to pursue available remedies or limit the damages that we may sustain; and (6) enforce our Terms & Conditions of Use.

In the event there is a change in the corporate structure of JD Supra such as, but not limited to, merger, consolidation, sale, liquidation or transfer of substantial assets, JD Supra may, in its sole discretion, transfer, sell or assign information collected on and through the Service to one or more affiliated or unaffiliated third parties.

Links to Other Websites

This Website and the Service may contain links to other websites. The operator of such other websites may collect information about you, including through cookies or other technologies. If you are using the Service through the Website and link to another site, you will leave the Website and this Policy will not apply to your use of and activity on those other sites. We encourage you to read the legal notices posted on those sites, including their privacy policies. We shall have no responsibility or liability for your visitation to, and the data collection and use practices of, such other sites. This Policy applies solely to the information collected in connection with your use of this Website and does not apply to any practices conducted offline or in connection with any other websites.

Changes in Our Privacy Policy

We reserve the right to change this Policy at any time. Please refer to the date at the top of this page to determine when this Policy was last revised. Any changes to our privacy policy will become effective upon posting of the revised policy on the Website. By continuing to use the Service or Website following such changes, you will be deemed to have agreed to such changes. If you do not agree with the terms of this Policy, as it may be amended from time to time, in whole or part, please do not continue using the Service or the Website.

Contacting JD Supra

If you have any questions about this privacy statement, the practices of this site, your dealings with this Web site, or if you would like to change any of the information you have provided to us, please contact us at:

- hide
*With LinkedIn, you don't need to create a separate login to manage your free JD Supra account, and we can make suggestions based on your needs and interests. We will not post anything on LinkedIn in your name. Or, sign up using your email address.