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Court: Careful about asking employees to explain sick days

February 29, 2012 by James Russo
Posted in: Communication, Documentation, Health care, Latest News and Views

A recent case in federal court reveals a major flaw in many employers’ sick-leave policy.

The case, EEOC v. Dillard’s, Inc., involved an employee who brought in a doctor’s note indicating the employee needed a week off for health-related reasons, but the note didn’t specify the reasons.

The employer’s attendance policy stated that proper documentation for sick leave must include “the nature of the condition being treated.” When reminded of the policy, the employee refused to provide further information. As a result, she was fired.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission brought suit against the employer, claiming the attendance policy violated the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibition against disability-related inquiries. A provision of the ADA prohibits employers from “mak[ing] inquires of an employee as to whether such employee is an individual with a disability or as to the nature or severity of the disability, unless such examination or inquiry is shown to be job-related and consistent with business necessity.”

The decision of the court: The employer’s policy was illegal because it invited intrusive questions regarding employees’ medical conditions that would tend to elicit information about an actual or perceived disability. The employer argued that the policy was necessary to verify the legitimacy of medical absences and to ensure that employees can safely return to work without posing a threat to themselves or others.

The court rejected that argument, noting that none of that justified a requirement to know the exact nature of an employee’s medical condition.

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