Full text of the Court's opinion

This week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit (encompassing Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee) handed the City of Columbus, Ohio, a victory in a battle with employees over the City’s requirement that employees submit a doctor’s note disclosing the “nature” of their illness upon their return to work from sick leave or restricted duty. Disagreeing with a lower court that had ruled in favor of the employees, the court of appeals ruled that Columbus’ policy violated neither the employees’ rights under the applicable disability law nor their constitutional rights. Lee v. City of Columbus, Ohio, No. 09-3899 (6th Cir. Feb. 23, 2011).

Issue Presented

The issue in this case centered on Columbus’ “Directive 3.07 X III(H)(1)(c)” (the “Directive”), which required employees returning from 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.” Several employees filed a class action lawsuit against Columbus, alleging that the required doctor’s note violated the federal Rehabilitation Act — a disability discrimination law applicable to any program or activity receiving federal money — and their constitutional privacy rights.

A federal trial court ruled in favor of the employees and issued an injunction that prohibited Columbus from enforcing the Directive. In doing so, the trial court invoked principles from the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), which applies generally to employers having 15 or more employees. Citing ADA provisions limiting employer medical inquiries to “job related” questions that are “consistent with business necessity,” the district court ruled that Columbus’ Directive was overly intrusive, providing supervisors with confidential medical information that they had no reason to have.

Decision Of Court Of Appeals

The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision and lifted the injunction. Though it agreed that the Rehabilitation Act incorporates ADA restrictions requiring an employee to disclose medical information, the Court of Appeals parted ways with the trial court’s analysis of the Columbus Directive’s legality. The Court of Appeals opined that requiring an employee to disclose the nature of his or her illness “is not necessarily a question about whether the employee is disabled.”

Rehabilitation Act

Significant in the analysis was a slight difference between the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA. Whereas the ADA forbids discrimination “because of” a disability, the Rehabilitation Act only prohibits discrimination “solely on the basis of” a disability. Thus, unlike under the ADA, an employer who makes a decision because of an employee’s disability does not violate the Rehabilitation Act if the disability is not the sole reason for the decision. Because of this difference between the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act, the Court of Appeals was particularly wary of invalidating the Columbus Directive. The Court of Appeals observed: “The 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.”

Americans With Disabilities Act

Had the case been decided solely under the ADA and not the Rehabilitation Act, the Court of Appeals suggested that its decision would not have been different. Even if the Directive were viewed as a “disability-related inquiry” (as the trial court had decided), the Court of Appeals found no violation of the ADA because the Directive was a valid “workplace policy applicable to all employees, disabled or not.” Notably, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) enforcement guidelines endorse an employer’s ability to request a doctor’s note when the employee has used sick leave. Though the EEOC guidelines are not binding on courts, the court of appeals found them to have persuasive force in examining the validity of Columbus’ Directive.

Conclusion

While the Lee case was decided under the Rehabilitation Act, it remains a significant case for employers who are bound by the ADA. As noted in the Court of Appeals’ opinion, the Rehabilitation Act incorporates various provisions of the ADA, including the provisions governing the propriety of medical-related inquiries. Thus, the Lee decision suggests that a policy requiring a doctor’s note that discloses the nature of the illness upon return from sick leave is valid under the ADA. Nonetheless, employers would be well advised to consult with their counsel prior to implementing such a requirement, so as to ensure compliance with the ADA or, if applicable, the Rehabilitation Act.