Current and former employees of the City of Columbus Division of Police filed a class action suit challenging a city directive related to sick leave. The directive required employees in the Division of Police returning to duty following sick leave, injury leave; or restricted duty to submit a doctor’s note to their immediate supervisor. The note had to state the “nature of the illness” and whether the employee was capable of returning to regular duty.
The plaintiffs alleged that the city’s directive violated the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities by programs that receive federal funding. The plaintiffs also alleged that the directive violated their rights to informational privacy under the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution.
An Ohio federal court granted summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs on both claims and entered a permanent injunction prohibiting the city from enforcing the directive. The city appealed the case to the Sixth Circuit, which reversed the lower court’s decision and lifted the injunction. The Sixth Circuit held that (1) the city had not violated the Rehabilitation Act, and (2) the plaintiffs' informational privacy rights under the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution were not violated by the requirements of the city’s sick leave directive.
Specifically, the Sixth Circuit determined that a request for a general diagnosis of an illness or injury was not a protected inquiry under the Rehabilitation Act. To the contrary, “[t]he mere fact that an employer, pursuant to a sick leave policy, requests a general diagnosis that may tend to lead to information about disabilities falls far short of the requisite proof that the employer is discriminating solely on the basis of disability.” (emphasis in original). The court suggested that the result of the case would be no different under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, noting that the city’s directive was a valid workplace policy “applicable to all employees, disabled or not.” The court also pointed to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s enforcement guidelines that endorse an employer’s ability to request a doctor’s note when an employee has used sick leave, provided that the employer’s policy applies uniformly to all employees. Lee v. The City of Columbus, Ohio, No. 09-3899 (6th Cir. Feb. 23, 2011)