Mental Health Disabilities – What to Do?

January 18, 2018

We are seeing a growth in disability claims based upon mental health conditions which is very troubling for employers because it is hard to understand whether an employee actually has a mental health condition and it is certainly hard to quantify how that condition impacts the performance of the employee.  A recent decision from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has given some helpful guidance to employers on how to deal with claims of mental health disability.

In a recent decision involving the Illinois Department of Transportation, the Seventh Circuit held that an employer could require an employee to undergo a mental health examination based upon the behaviors exhibited by the employee in the workplace.  In this case, the employee exhibited a great deal of unusual behaviors, including sending e-mail correspondence to the local union representative referencing some type of a death threat to other employees in the workplace.  This prompted the employer to ask the employee to undergo a fitness for duty examination.  As part of the examination, a referral was made to a further examination by a psychiatrist because of the behaviors exhibited by the employee.

Ultimately, the Court held that it was reasonable for the employer to require the employee to undergo a psychiatric examination because there was significant concern that the medical condition (mental health) of this employee impaired the ability of the employee to perform the essential functions of her job and possibly posed a threat to others because of the medical condition.  The Court held that obtaining information to determine whether there was a potential threat to other employees was an appropriate business necessity that justified the mental health examination and therefore held that the examination by the psychiatrist was job-related.  The Court held that the employer did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act when requesting this psychiatric evaluation.

While this decision allows some flexibility for companies to assess the mental health of its employees, everyone must be careful to only seek a medical examination that is directly related to a reasonable belief that the employee cannot perform the essential functions of the job or may pose a direct threat to other employees.  The ability to require a mental health examination is available, but it must be very carefully used in those situations where the conduct of the employee raises significant concerns about the employee in the workplace.

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