In a recent opinion, a California appellate court clarified the boundaries of employers’ rights to seek medical re-evaluation of employees following medical leave.  When employees return from a leave of absence having been certified as fit for duty by their own medical provider, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires that they be restored to their position, or an equivalent position, with full benefits and privileges.  However, once reinstated, employers may require returned employees to be re-evaluated for fitness to perform their duties. 

The Second Appellate Division addressed the matter in its April 15, 2014, opinion in Susan White v. County of Los Angeles.  White was a senior district attorney investigator and peace officer with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.  Her duties included serving arrest warrants, making arrests, interrogating suspects, and booking prisoners, and required her to carry a firearm.  Beginning in late 2009, White began demonstrating erratic behavior that constituted a distraction to her co-workers, impaired her performance of her duties, and subjected her and her co-workers to risk of serious injury. 

In 2011, White took a leave of absence.  She returned to work four months later, presenting medical documentation stating that she was fit to return to duty.  Her employer reinstated her, but immediately placed her on fully paid administrative leave until she submitted to a medical re-evaluation to determine her fitness for duty.  White refused to be re-evaluated, arguing that re-evaluation would interfere with her FMLA right to return to work.

In addressing White’s FMLA rights, the appellate court stated that the employer was entitled to require a re-evaluation.  The court reasoned that, while the FMLA required the employer to reinstate White to her position, once she was reinstated, those rights were not further implicated by the requested re-evaluation.  This was particularly the case where there were reasons to doubt the accuracy of the employee’s medical release papers and where the employee’s duties included wielding a firearm.

The appellate court provided further guidance on the intersection of employer and employee rights regarding medical evaluation and leave.  Prior to granting medical leave, an employer may request a second opinion at its own expense as to whether the employees’ health conditions render them unable to work.  Also, employers are justified in seeking post-reinstatement evaluation if, after reinstatement, employees demonstrate conduct or circumstances that bring into question their fitness for duty.  Finally, it is important to note that, irrespective of employees’ right to reinstatement under the FMLA, any evaluation or re-evaluation of employees must comply with restrictions imposed by the Americans with Disabilities Act and its amendments. 

Employers are urged to consult with counsel concerning the particular circumstances of their case if they are considering requiring employees to submit to medical evaluations for fitness of duty or other purposes.

To read the opinion, click here.