Recently in Coffman v. Indianapolis Fire Department, 2009 WL 2525762 (Aug. 20, 2009), the federal Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals determined that a fire department’s decision to require a firefighter to undergo psychiatric evaluation based on reports of her “withdrawn” and “defensive” behavior was permissible under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). In doing so, the court provided useful guidance on the limited scenarios in which psychiatric evaluations can be required by employers to address workplace issues.

The Coffman Decision

Tonya Coffman is a firefighter with the Indianapolis Fire Department (“Department”). In 2004, Coffman’s fellow firefighters expressed concern about, among other things, Coffman’s well-being, including that Coffman was having difficulty socializing with fellow firefighters and seeking their assistance, her becoming increasingly guarded and “not herself,” and her being “often alone,” “withdrawn” and “defensive” for “no legitimate reason.” The Department responded to these concerns by requiring Coffman to undergo a psychological fitness-for-duty evaluation and transferring her to “limited duty status.” Coffman underwent this psychological fitness-for-duty evaluation and multiple follow-up evaluations. While these evaluations all concluded that Coffman was not suffering from any type of psychological disorder, one evaluator determined that Coffman was unfit for duty on account of her being “hostile” and “extremely resistant.” Coffman was later returned to active duty pursuant to subsequent follow-up evaluations determining that Coffman was again fit for active duty.

Coffman sued the Department claiming that the Department violated, among other things, the ADA by requiring multiple medical examinations that were neither job-related nor consistent with business necessity. The trial court granted the Department’s motion for summary judgment, holding that Coffman failed to establish an ADA claim.

The Seventh Circuit affirmed, finding that the Department’s psychiatric evaluations of Coffman met the ADA standard of being job-related and consistent with business necessity and therefore, were permissible. In arriving at this conclusion, the court relied on the fact that, at the time the issues about Coffman’s well-being arose, there had been two recent firefighter suicides. Given the service that firefighters provide to the public’s emergency medical and safety needs, the recent suicide deaths heightened the concern not only about Coffman’s safety but also the safety of the public at large. The court also relied on the “special work environment” of a fire department. The court acknowledged that while psychological exams in response to “withdrawn” and “defensive” behavior would not be job-related in many vocations, they would be for a fire department given its special service to the public. The court explained that such service obliges the fire department to ensure its workforce is both mentally and physically capable of performing what is “doubtless mentally and physically demanding work.” The court concluded that the Department ultimately had a “particularly compelling” need to assure Coffman was mentally fit to perform her duties in light of the reports of her “withdrawn” behavior and the recent suicides.

The Take-Away

Under the ADA, employers are prohibited from requiring any medical examination unless the examination is both job-related and consistent with business necessity. The enforcement guidelines published by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission state that a medical examination is job-related and consistent with business necessity when an employer reasonably believes, based on objective evidence, that a medical condition will impair the employee’s ability to perform essential job functions or result in the employee posing a threat of harm due to his/her medical condition.

Psychiatric exams are a type of highly invasive medical exam that may require an even more “compelling” justification to be permissible under the ADA. Indeed, the Coffman decision highlights the narrow circumstances under which psychiatric exams are permissible. As the court explained, an employee engaging in “withdrawn” or “defensive” behavior is likely an insufficient basis to require a psychiatric exam for most work environments. The only reason such behavior was sufficient in Coffman was because of the particular context of the behavior, occurring shortly after two suicides, and the unique nature of Coffman’s job which entailed serving the public’s emergency safety needs.

Thus, employers in ordinary work environments need to proceed all the more cautiously before requiring any psychiatric exam of an employee. Mere odd or uncharacteristic behavior is insufficient. Such behavior should raise some specific and “compelling” safety concern regarding employees or the public at large (e.g., an emergency room doctor suffering from significant memory lapses or a child daycare worker exhibiting hostile demeanor). As illustrated in Coffman, determining whether an exam should be permitted in a given scenario will ultimately depend on the particular facts and circumstances relating to the individual, and his or her job and the work environment.