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Court of Appeals Explains When Employer Can Require Fitness for Duty Exam in Case Involving University of Maryland Professor

By on October 3, 2014 in ADA with 1 Comment

When can an employer require a physical or mental fitness-for-duty examination? That was the issue in Coursey v. University of Maryland Eastern Shore, 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 12407 (4th Cir. 2014).

Over a period of years, beginning in 2004, students and faculty members lodged complaints about the conduct of Professor Leon Coursey.  The allegations concerned inappropriate sexual comments, unfairly favoring students,  and erratic and unprofessional behavior with colleagues. Some of his colleagues claimed that Dr. Coursey would disparage them and act overly aggressive with them in the presence of students.  Several students claimed that he was verbally abusive and went berserk on students in class.  Events came to a head on January 13, 2009 when Dr. James Heimdal, Chair of the Exercise Science Department, sent a memorandum to Coursey summarizing concerns that had been raised about him.

On February 3, 2009, the University removed Dr. Coursey from campus and suspended him from his position.  During the same months, the Dean of the University investigated the allegations and documented his findings and recommendations by memorandum.  He also interviewed Dr. Coursey, who said that people at the University were “out to get him.” The Dean recommended that a mental health evaluation take place.

For his part, Dr. Coursey lodged a grievance against the University arguing that he had been suspended without cause.  A faculty grievance board was convened and conducted a hearing.  The Grievance Board found on May 14, 2009 that the University had violated applicable procedures in suspending Dr. Coursey and recommended that he be reinstated to his regular duties.

University President Thelma Thompson had the ultimate authority to decide on reinstatement.  She recommended that Dr. Coursey first undergo a mental health evaluation.  She incorrectly asserted that this was the Grievance Board’s recommendation.  Dr. Coursey refused to undergo a mental evaluation and remained suspended on paid leave.  He filed a discrimination charge against the University with the EEOC.

On May 25, 2010, formal charges of termination were filed against Dr. Coursey for professional misconduct, incompetence, and insubordination.  As of August 1, 2010, he was suspended without pay.  A five-member faculty panel convened to review the charges lodged against Dr. Coursey.  The Panel heard testimony from 19 witnesses and issued a report recommending the termination of Dr. Coursey’s employment. Following his termination, Dr. Coursey sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act, contending that the University had no right to require a mental fitness examination and had regarded him improperly as having a disability.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals noted that an employer has a right to require a fitness examination when such examination is shown to be job-related and consistent with business necessity.  It said:

A business necessity must be based on more than ‘mere expediency,’ and will be found to exist where the employer can ‘identify legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons to doubt the employee’s capacity to perform his or her duties.’

The Court further held that there was proof of business necessity in this case:

Dr. Coursey’s position as a full Professor at UMES required that he instruct, supervise, and interact with students and faculty in a professional and non-threatening manner.  Given the plethora of complaints about Coursey’s violent outbursts, erratic and inappropriate behavior, as well as his disregard for UMES policies, UMES has shown that it had valid concerns about Coursey’s ability to perform his duties.  A university is in the business of educating students; as such, it is essential that its faculty members be able to fulfill that role.

The Court also further rejected Dr. Coursey’s contention that the mere request for a fitness examination suggests that his employer regarded him as having a disability.  It said that a request for a medical examination, standing alone, is insufficient to prove that the employer regarded the employee as being disabled.

The case is very useful because it clarifies the standard under which employers have a right to require fitness-for-duty examinations.  The employer must have a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason to doubt the employee’s capacity to perform his or her duties under the business necessity provision.  The EEOC regulations allow fitness for duty examinations when there is a need to determine whether an employee is able to perform the essential job functions.  29 C.F. R. pt. 1630, App. 1630.14(c).

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John H. Geaney

About the Author

About the Author:

John H. Geaney, an executive committee member and shareholder with Capehart Scatchard, began an email newsletter entitled Currents in Workers’ Compensation, ADA and FMLA in 2001 in order to keep clients and readers informed on leading developments in these three areas of law. Since that time he has written over 500 newsletter updates.

Mr. Geaney is the author of Geaney’s New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Manual for Practitioners, Adjusters & Employers. The manual is distributed by the New Jersey Institute for Continuing Legal Education (NJICLE). He also authored an ADA and FMLA manual as distributed by NJICLE. If you are interested in purchasing the manual, please contact NJICLE at 732-214-8500 or visit their website at www.njicle.com.

Mr. Geaney represents employers in the defense of workers’ compensation, ADA and FMLA matters. He is a Fellow of the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers of the American Bar Association and is certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a workers’ compensation law attorney. He is one of two firm representatives to the National Workers’ Compensation Defense Network. He has served on the Executive Committee of Capehart Scatchard for over ten (10) years.

A graduate of Holy Cross College summa cum laude, Mr. Geaney obtained his law degree from Boston College Law School. He has been named a “Super Lawyer” by his peers and Law and Politics. He serves as Vice President of the Friends of MEND, the fundraising arm of a local charitable organization devoted to promoting affordable housing.

Capehart Scatchard is a full service law firm with offices in Mt. Laurel and Trenton, New Jersey. The firm represents employers and businesses in a wide variety of areas, including workers’ compensation, civil litigation, labor, environmental, business, estates and governmental affairs.

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  1. This should help employers’ concerns about sending an employee for a fitness for duty exam without fear of it not being proper or legal.

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