Thursday, May 09, 2013

Eleventh Circuit Rules on Medical Examinations for Current Employees

Yesterday, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit issued an opinion in Owusu-Ansah v. Coca-Cola Company.  At the time at issue in the case, Owusu-Ansah worked for Coca-Cola as a quality assurance person for customer service representatives in the company's call center ("your call is being monitored for quality assurance").  In this position, he worked mostly from home.  In December 2007, however, he went to the office for a routine management meeting with his supervisor. At the meeting, according to the record as reviewed by the court, Owusu-Ansah complained about a number of instances of national origin discrimination and harassment he said he had experienced at the hands of his supervisors and coworkers.  His supervisor "observed that Mr. Owusu-Ansah became agitated during the meeting, banged his hand on the table where they sat, and said that someone was 'going to pay for this.'"  

Concerned about that behavior (Owusu-Ansah's, not the behavior of those who allegedly discriminated against Owusu-Ansah), company management asked him to be interviewed by a consulting psychologist.  After the interview, the company placed Owusu-Ansah on paid leave to enable him to be further evaluated as a potential safety threat.  The company directed Owusu-Ansah to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, which included taking the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI).  He first refused to take the MMPI, but eventually took the test in March 2008.  After reviewing the results of the test, Coca-Cola allowed Owusu-Ansah to return to work in April.

Owusu-Ansah sued under the ADA, which prohibits employers from requiring current workers to undergo medical examinations or inquiries "unless such examination or inquiry is shown to be job-related and consistent with business necessity."  42 U.S.C. 12112(d)(4)(A).  The district court granted summary judgment to the company, and the Eleventh Circuit yesterday affirmed.

The court of appeals held that the psychological evaluation, including the requirement that Owusu-Ansah take the MMPI, was "job-related and consistent with business necessity" (I've omitted citations and footnotes):
The evaluation was "job-related" because an "employee's ability to handle reasonably necessary stress and work reasonably well with others are essential functions of any position." [Quoting an earlier Eleventh Circuit case] Ms. Cabral reported that Mr. Owusu-Ansah – in the course of complaining about discrimination and harassment – banged his fist on the table and said in a raised voice that someone was "going to pay for this." When he was deposed, Mr. Owusu-Ansah denied having behaved that way during his meeting with Ms. Cabral, and he now points out that there were no prior incidents showing that he had a propensity for workplace violence. That, however, is not dispositive. Although Coca-Cola apparently never asked Mr. Owusu-Ansah for his version of what happened at the meeting, it did not rely solely on Ms. Cabral's account in ordering the evaluation. Coca-Cola knew that Mr. Owusu-Ansah had refused to speak to Ms. Welsh and Dr. Riddell about his workplace problems. In addition, Dr. McElhaney – the consulting psychologist – expressed "significant concerns" to Coca-Cola about Mr. Owusu-Ansah's emotional and psychological stability, and recommended a psychiatric/psychological fitness-for-duty evaluation.

On this record, we conclude that Coca-Cola had a reasonable, objective concern about Mr. Owusu-Ansah's mental state, which affected job performance and potentially threatened the safety of its other employees. Though Mr. Owusu- Ansah worked from home, he had access to and was required to attend meetings at the Dunwoody call center.

For basically the same reasons, the evaluation was also "consistent with business necessity." Though it may not be one of the traditional canons of statutory construction, common sense is not irrelevant in construing statutes,4 and in our view an employer can lawfully require a psychiatric/psychological fitness- for-duty evaluation under § 12112(d)(4)(A) if it has information suggesting that an employee is unstable and may pose a danger to others.
This case doesn't look to have been the best litigated by plaintiffs' counsel (who apparently failed to object to the factual aspects of the magistrate judge's recommended ruling in the district court), but the opinion is nonetheless troubling in the low bar it sets for a psychological evaluation.  How many folks have raised their voices and banged on the table when complaining about workplace mistreatment without being a safety risk?  I would bet it's a lot.



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