One issue that often puzzles employers is whether they may require medical documentation, such as a doctor’s note, before providing an accommodation to a disabled employee. As most employers know, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires them to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled employees. But this obligation extends only to the physical or mental limitations of the disabled employee that the employer knows about. The ADA does not expect an employer to accommodate disabilities of which the employer is unaware.

When the employee’s disability or need for accommodation is not obvious, the employer may ask the employee for documentation about her disability and functional limitations. The employer may require that this documentation come from a health care professional such as a doctor, nurse or physical therapist.

For example, suppose an employee informs her employer that she is having trouble bending over and picking up her tools due to a back injury. If the employee requests an accommodation, the employer may require medical documentation regarding whether the employee has a disability. This documentation might address the nature, severity, and duration of the impairment, and the extent to which the impairment limits the employee’s ability to perform certain activities.

There are limitations on the employer’s right to request medical documentation, however. The employer may only require documentation needed to show that the employee has a disability and that this disability requires accommodation. Generally, the employer cannot request the employee’s complete medical records because these records are likely to contain information unrelated to determining the existence of a disability and the need for accommodation.

Additionally, the employer cannot ask for any documentation when both the employee’s disability and the need for accommodation are obvious. For example, an employee who uses a wheelchair may ask her employer to elevate her desk on blocks so that the arms of her wheelchair fit underneath her desktop. If the employer demanded a doctor’s note before elevating the desk, it would likely violate the ADA.

Often, however, the employee’s disability or need for accommodation will not be obvious to the employer. In these instances, an employee who refuses to provide the documentation requested by the employer is not entitled to reasonable accommodation.