Fourth Circuit Backs Detailed Medical Inquiry for Safety-Sensitive Job

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The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits employers from asking questions about an employee’s medical condition absent “business necessity.” What exactly constitutes business necessity has been the subject of litigation for years. Last week, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia) affirmed dismissal of an ADA discrimination claim filed by a railroad engineer who contested his employer’s request for detailed medical information following a positive drug test.

In Coffey v. Norfolk Southern Railway Co., the plaintiff had been involved in a train derailment that led to a drug test mandated by the Department of Transportation. That test revealed the presence of amphetamines, and he was subject to follow-up testing for five years. Several years later, he tested positive for amphetamines and codeine. The plaintiff contended that he had legitimate prescriptions for both medications. In addition to requesting the prescriptions, his employer asked for a range of information relating to his underlying medical conditions and how they could affect his job performance. The plaintiff was terminated after repeated failures to fully comply with these requests. He filed suit, claiming that the information request was an impermissible medical inquiry under the ADA.

The Fourth Circuit had little difficulty rejecting the plaintiff’s claims. First, the court noted that the drug test and follow up safety questions were mandated by federal rules. Second, the employer had objectively reasonable business grounds for asking detailed questions about the plaintiff’s medical condition given the potential impact of his condition on his ability to safely operate a locomotive.

This case demonstrates that federal courts give employers more leeway to ask questions about an employee’s medical condition where his or her job duties impact safety. Even in the absence of regulations requiring such inquiries, medical questions reasonably related to safety will be found to meet the business necessity requirement. Employers involved in manufacturing, transportation, health care, and other safety-sensitive industries can require employees to provide detailed medical documentation confirming their ability to safely and effectively perform their work.

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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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