Asking for a doctor’s note explaining a health-related absence can violate the ADA

A federal district court recently held that an employer’s attendance policy — which required employees to provide a doctor’s note describing the nature of an absence — violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.  In EEOC v. Dillards, an employee missed a few days of work for health-related reasons.  Upon her return she provided her supervisor with doctor’s note simply stating she was unable to work; the note did not state the nature of the condition requiring time off.  In accordance with Dillard’s policy requiring more detail, the supervisor did not excuse the absences and the employee was then fired for excessive absenteeism.  Not ok under the ADA, held the court.

Dillard’s policy stated that a health-related absence would only be excused if the employee submitted a doctor’s note stating “the nature of the absence (such as migraine, high blood pressure, etc ….”  Dillard’s subsequently reaffirmed the policy, clarifying that the doctor’s note “must state the condition being treated.”  According to the court, this policy violates the ADA on its face, as it permits and even encourages  supervisors to make disability-related inquiries, which is prohibited by the ADA.

This case is noteworthy for a few reasons.  First, it is probably a common occurrence for well-intended supervisors to ask for such information to ensure employees are not abusing sick leave.  Or simply even to check up on employees by trying to show they care.  But, doing so is risky.  Because this is not an intuitive proposition, supervisory training is a must.  Second, the courts have not often weighed in on the ADA’s prohibition against disability-related inquiries.  So this case – even though it was decided in California – could impact employers everywhere.  Third, employers should pay attention to the fact that the EEOC took this case to trial.  As the agency has stated, it is placing a tremendous priority in pursuing potential ADA violations, in light of the ADA Amendments.

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