Employer’s Demand of Psych Exam for Nurse Did Not Trigger ADA Violation, Sixth Circuit Rules

Dealing with an employee who may have psychological issues, such as possible suicidal thoughts, can be a tricky issue for an employer. The employer has an obligation to protect the well-being of its other employees, but it also needs to ensure that it does not discriminate against the employee who may have a recognized disability. A recent Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in favor of an Ohio employer in an Americans With Disabilities Act case offers some helpful insight for Tennessee employers facing this situation.

Peggy Barnum worked for The Ohio State University Medical Center as a certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA). Her employment was without major incident for five years until major personal problems struck. In 2011, Barnum’s marriage ended in divorce, and her daughter was prosecuted for criminal violations. These issues bled over into her work, where the nurse allegedly opined, among other things, that “maybe I should put a gun to my head,” and “maybe I should do everybody a favor and not be around.” Barnum’s emotional problems were also affecting her work, where her level of focus was noted to be deficient.

After two weeks off from work, Barnum received a recommendation from her employer that she undergo a “fitness for duty” examination administered by a psychiatrist. The nurse initially resisted but eventually visited a psychiatrist. That doctor opined that the nurse was, and always had been, fit for duty. After an approximately 13-month process, the medical center reinstated Barnum.

The nurse sued the employer for several things, including disability discrimination. Barnum argued that her employer regarded her as disabled and violated the ADA by demanding that she undergo evaluations that were not related to her job and were not required by business necessity. In cases in which an employer seeks a mental health evaluation, such a demand is permissible, and no ADA violation occurs, if the employer can show that it had evidence that would cause “a reasonable person to inquire as to whether [the] employee is still capable of performing [her] job.”

In Barnum’s case, her supervisors had received word of “numerous concerns” about the nurse’s lack of ability to focus and, in one instance, an inability to complete a routine task. They also received word of at least one occasion on which the nurse made a comment that suggested suicidal thoughts. This proof was more than enough to lead a reasonable person to wonder whether Barnum remained capable of doing her work at the medical center. Based on this, the trial court was entitled to decide that the employer did not regard the nurse as disabled, thereby negating any possibility of disability discrimination.

When faced with an employee demonstrating potential emotional issues at work, an employer must ensure that it meets its obligations to carry out its business and protect its other employees (and its clients), while also avoiding violating federal discrimination laws in its treatment of the troubled employee. For advice and representation regarding these and other discrimination issues, talk to the Tennessee disability discrimination attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert. Our team has many years of representing both employers and employees effectively when it comes to ADA issues.

To speak with one of our lawyers about your case, call 404-873-8048.

More blog posts:

Lack of Proof that Employer Knew About Employee’s Disability Dooms ADA Case, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Jan. 20, 2016

Tennessee Staffing Agency and Recycling Center Sued by EEOC for Alleged Disability Discrimination, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, March 4, 2015

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