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Improper Medical Inquiry Claim Not Dependent On Disability

Published by on April 14, 2010

In Harrison v. Benchmark Electronics, the Eleventh Circuit held that an employee can bring an ADA claim against an employer based on an improper medical inquiry regardless of whether the employee is disabled within the meaning of the ADA.  More after the break. John Harrison began working for Benchmark Electronics (“Benchmark”) as a temporary employee […]

In Harrison v. Benchmark Electronics, the Eleventh Circuit held that an employee can bring an ADA claim against an employer based on an improper medical inquiry regardless of whether the employee is disabled within the meaning of the ADA.  More after the break.

John Harrison began working for Benchmark Electronics (“Benchmark”) as a temporary employee in 2005.  A few months later, Harrison applied for a permanent position with the company and consented to a background check and drug test as part of the pre-employment inquiry.  After Harrison’s drug test turned out positive for barbiturates, his supervisor, Don Anthony, approached him about it.  Harrison informed Anthony that he had a prescription for the medication, and Anthony proceeded to call the Medical Review Officer (“MRO”) in charge of reviewing Harrison’s drug test.  The MRO asked Harrison some questions over the telephone regarding the medication.  With Anthony present in the room, Harrison told the MRO that the medication was for his epilepsy, a condition he had since he was a child.  After the MRO cleared Harrison’s drug test and the company’s human resources department gave Anthony the go-ahead to hire Harrison, Anthony told human resources not to extend Harrison an offer.  He then informed the temporary agency not to return Harrison to Benchmark, citing performance and attitude problems.  The agency then fired Harrison.

Harrison proceeded to sue Benchmark under the ADA, alleging improper medical inquiry and discrimination due to a perceived disability.  The district court granted summary judgment for Benchmark on all claims.  Harrison appealed only the medical inquiry claim.  The Court of Appeals first examined whether a non-disabled employee could state a private cause of action for a medical inquiry claim, an issue of first impression in the Eleventh Circuit.  The ADA prohibits employers from “conduct[ing] a medical examination or mak[ing] inquiries of a job applicant as to whether such applicant is an individual with a disability or as to the nature or severity of such disability.”  Applying principles of statutory construction, the court reasoned that the statute at issue does not limit coverage to job applicants who are also disabled within the meaning of the ADA.  The court stated that under the ADA, employers may ask follow-up questions after a positive drug test result to determine whether the medications taken are legally prescribed, so long as the questions do not relate to disability.  Citing EEOC guidance, the court stated that questions that “are likely to elicit information about a disability” are prohibited as part of the pre-employment offer inquiry.  The court found that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the supervisor’s presence in the room during the MRO’s conversation with Harrison constituted “an intentional attempt likely to elicit information about a disability,” and so reversed the grant of summary judgment in favor of Benchmark.

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