stethoscope lying on keyboard of a laptopThe Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits employers from discriminating against any “qualified individual on the basis of a disability.” But a person is not a “qualified individual” under the ADA if he or she “poses a ‘direct threat’ to the health or safety of others which cannot be eliminated by a reasonable accommodation.” A direct threat is further defined as “a significant risk to the health or safety of others that cannot be eliminated by reasonable accommodation.”

While the question of whether an employee is a “direct threat to the health or safety of others” can arise in any number of employment situations, law enforcement is one area in which it is particularly relevant. Importantly, police and other law enforcement organizations frequently examine the issue of whether their officers are “fit for duty,” a question that oftentimes overlaps with the “direct threat” analysis under the ADA. So, what does this look like in application? A recent Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decision answers that question.

In Michael v. City of Troy Police Dep’t, a divided panel of the Sixth Circuit held that a lower court properly granted summary judgment to the City of Troy in an ADA discrimination suit brought by a police officer employee. The employee, Todd Michael, sued after the city placed him on unpaid leave and refused to return him to duty after an investigation into his psychological condition.

The decision in Michael v. City of Troy highlights a couple of existing, yet significant, principles under the ADA:

(1) In examining whether an employee presents a “direct threat to the health or safety of others,” an employer may rely on objectively reasonable medical opinions even where they conflict with other medical opinions.

Simply stated, reasonable doctors can disagree. This is why an employer must rely on an “objectively reasonable” opinion, not a conclusively accurate one. The Michael majority held that the City of Troy properly relied on “objectively reasonable” opinions from medical professionals who concluded that returning the plaintiff to duty presented a threat to the health and safety of others. Importantly, other medical professionals concluded otherwise, even challenging the reasonableness of the opinions on which the city relied. Nevertheless, the majority concluded that summary judgment to the city was proper despite these conflicting medical opinions.

Against this backdrop, can an employee ever create a jury question where the employer’s “direct threat” decision is based on a medical opinion? Only if the underlying medical opinion is objectively unreasonable. And while the majority acknowledges this possibility, it provides little insight into the type of evidence that could raise legitimate questions as to objective reasonableness. One thing is certain: if the employer’s underlying opinion is well-reasoned, yet imperfect, and analyzes the specific job and employee at issue, simply producing a conflicting opinion – even an equally or more reasonable one – will not suffice.

(Note: The dissent concluded that the plaintiff employee presented well-reasoned medical opinions, based on individualized analysis of the job and employee at issue, that directly challenged the rationale of the medical opinions on which the employer based its decision. This, in the dissent’s view, was sufficient to create a question of fact as to the objective reasonableness of the employer’s decision.)

(2) An employer need not rely on a medical opinion to conclude that an employee presents a “direct threat.”

Relying on authority from the First Circuit, EEOC v. Amego, 110 F.3d 135 (1st Cir. 1997), the Michael majority also concluded that summary judgment was appropriate because the city properly relied on the plaintiff’s own troubling behavior as the basis for the city’s conclusion that he posed a direct threat. In other words, according to the majority, the city had an “objectively reasonable” basis for concluding that the employee posed a direct threat notwithstanding the conflicting medical opinions on that issue. Though the dissent disagreed that the evidence was so one-sided to form the basis for an “objectively reasonable” opinion that the plaintiff posed a direct threat, the dissent did not dispute the majority’s reliance on Amego in the first instance. Thus, employers may safely rely on evidence other than medical opinions to form the basis for their “direct threat” conclusions.

To read the full Michael v. City of Troy decision, click here.

 Photo credit: jfcherry via / CC BY-SA

The information contained on this blog is not legal advice, nor does this blog create an attorney-client relationship. Klein Bussell attorneys do not blog about pending matters handled on behalf of our clients and will never disclose client confidences.

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