When employer-mandated medical exams don’t violate the ADA

Posted January 25, 2017

By Katie Loehrke, PHR, editor, J. J. Keller & Associates

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that a trucking company’s required sleep apnea test for drivers with a body mass index (BMI) greater than 35 was not in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

In 2013, because he had a BMI of more than 35, the plaintiff in this case (Parker v. Crete Carrier Corporation, et al, No. 16-1371) was advised that he would need to attend a sleep study to determine whether he had sleep apnea.

The employee, however, refused, indicating that he had a five-year accident-free driving record, that he had no record of sleep issues at work, and that he had recently received a Department of Transportation medical certification. He even presented a doctor’s note indicating that the sleep apnea test was not medically necessary.

Business necessity and the ADA

The employer suspended the employee, and the employee filed suit, alleging that the required medical examination was a violation of the ADA, which requires medical examinations to be either voluntary, or job related and consistent with business necessity.

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, indicated that courts “will readily find a business necessity if an employer can demonstrate ... a medical examination or inquiry is necessary to determine ... whether the employee can perform job-related duties when the employer can identify legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons to doubt the employee’s capacity to perform his or her duties.”

The court stated that the sleep study requirement was job related because it deals with a condition that impairs drivers’ abilities to operate their vehicles. Further, the test was consistent with business necessity because an examination was necessary to determine whether an individual had obstructive sleep apnea, a condition which, in the employee’s line of work, “poses a public safety hazard by increasing the risk of motor vehicle accidents.”

Individual consideration not required

While the employee argued that the employer failed to consider his individual characteristics before mandating the sleep study, the court ruled that the law does not require such an individual consideration, and that the ADA allows employers to require medical exams of an entire class of employees.

Further, singling out the class of drivers with BMIs over 35 did not create a discrimination issue because the company had a reasonable basis for concluding that members of that class may pose a safety risk given the correlation between high BMIs and obstructive sleep apnea.

Broader implications

While this ruling is important for motor carriers, it also has implications for any company looking to create or defend programs that require medical examinations.

Employers must consider whether medical exams are job related and consistent with business necessity under the ADA, but they may take into account proven safety risks in such an assessment.

Employers must also consider whether the selection of individuals required to undergo a medical examination could be viewed as discriminatory.

About the author:

Katie Loehrke

Katie Loehrke is a certified Professional in Human Resources and an editor with J. J. Keller & Associates, a nationally recognized compliance resource firm. The company offers a diverse line of products and services to address the broad range of responsibilities held by HR and corporate professionals. Loehrke specializes in employment law topics such as discrimination, privacy and social media, and affirmative action. She is the editor of J. J. Keller’s Employment Law Today newsletter and its Essentials of Employment Law manual. For more information, visit www.jjkeller.com/hr.