Employer Fitness For Duty Policy Survives Disability Discrimination Claim

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A district court ruled that a long-time railroad trackman, who was pulled from service following safety complaints from his coworkers and supervisors, failed to prove that he was considered disabled under the ADA, and failed to prove that his employer (the railroad) violated the ADA when it required him to undergo a “fitness for duty” medical exam following his removal from service. Owen v. Union Pacific Railroad Co., No. 8:19CV462 (D. Neb. Nov. 12, 2020).

In Owen, coworkers observed a long-time trackman struggling to get around, having trouble breathing, and having trouble kneeling and standing. One of the coworkers shared his concerns about the trackman’s ability to perform his physically demanding job duties safely with a group supervisor. After observing the trackman’s conduct himself, the group supervisor contacted a railroad manager to report the trackman’s concerning behavior. After reviewing the concerns of managers, supervisors, and the company physician, the trackman’s manager pulled him from service and sent him home, fearing that the trackman would injure himself or others if he remained on the job.  Having received credible information raising concerns about the trackman’s ability to perform his job duties safely, the manager instructed the trackman to undergo a fitness for duty examination, which was consistent with the railroad’s policies.

When he was not permitted to return to work, the trackman sued the railroad for alleged violations of the ADA. The railroad ultimately moved for summary judgment. On November 12, 2020, the court ruled in favor of the railroad.

First, the district court found that the trackman’s claim could not survive because he did not qualify as disabled under the ADA. Second, it found the railroad’s safety concerns qualified as a legitimate, nondiscriminatory basis for the trackman’s removal from service. Third, it found the medical examination did not violate the ADA because it was job-related, vital to the company’s business, and “no broader or more intrusive than necessary.”

This case highlights the importance of considering ADA implications when acting on physical safety concerns of an employee.

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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