Employers need to be very mindful of ADA requirements when they ask their employees medical questions or seek medical records. But that doesn’t mean such requests are never justified.
In a recent case, a federal appeals court said a railway company permissibly asked an engineer to provide medical records. The company terminated the engineer’s employer after he did not meet the request.
Michael Coffey began working as a locomotive engineer for the Norfolk Southern Railway Company in 1999.
In addition to operating trains, Coffey responded to track hazards that might cause a collision or a derailment. Multiple times per shift, he walked across uneven tracks and climb steps to board and deboard the train.
In 2012, Coffey was operating a train when it derailed. After the accident, a drug test showed amphetamines in his system.
The railway allowed him to keep working, but it subjected him to follow-up drug testing for five years.
In 2016, Coffey tested positive for amphetamines and for codeine as well.
He told the railway that he had prescriptions for both medications.
More specifically, he said the amphetamines were Adderall, which he took to treat his Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. He added that he took Tylenol #3 for a back condition. That explained the positive codeine test result, he said.
The railway responded to this explanation by asking Coffey to provide it with certain records regarding his use of medication within 30 days.
The railway asked that Coffey’s treating physicians tell the employer about Coffey’s diagnoses, symptoms, medication regimen and compliance with it, side effects, and awareness of medications prescribed by others.
It also asked Coffey’s doctors to weigh in on his ability to safely perform his job functions. And it requested that they articulate any recommended work restrictions or job-related accommodations.
Coffey says he passed the request along to his doctors, and that he believed they responded. But the railway says they did not.
Injury Complicates Things
Things got more complicated when Coffey ruptured his Achilles tendon in June of 2016.
He took a medical leave after suffering the injury. The railway told him it needed medical info from him before he returned. It wanted the info to evaluate his fitness to return.
The post-injury leave lasted for about 10 months. In April of 2017, his doctor cleared him to return to work. The railway sent Coffey a follow-up letter, again asking for all the records it had sought earlier.
Coffey said a pattern developed: The railway would ask for the records; he would ask him doctors to provide them; and the railway would tell him it had not received them.
The railway finally received particular records in June and July of 2017. But they were scant. There was a two-sentence note from his doctor clearing him to return to work with no restrictions. And there was the results of a months-old functional capacity evaluation. Also, one-page notes verified that Coffey had prescriptions for Adderall and Tylenol #3.
The railway did not like the response. It did not adequately answer its questions.
It told Coffey there would be a disciplinary hearing in early September of 2017. Coffey provided about 400 pages of medical records for the hearing, but the railway said they did not answer all its questions. It then terminated Coffey’s employment.
Coffey sued, saying the railway violated the ADA by discriminating against him based on disability and by making improper medical requests and terminating his employment for not complying with those requests.
A lower court granted summary judgment in the railway’s favor, ruling that it reasonably believed that Coffey could not perform his job safely. And it said that the requests were consistent with business necessity, as the ADA requires, because federal safety regulations require the railway to ask their employees about their use of controlled substances.
Appeals Court Affirms
On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the lower court’s ruling.
Stressing the safety-sensitive nature of Coffey’s job, the appeals court agreed that Federal Railway Administration regulations mandated the requests.
The railway’s requests were consistent with the ADA because they were job-related and consistent with business necessity, the court said.
It rejected Coffey’s argument that the volume of records requested was not necessary. But the records were job-related and federally required.
The case is Coffey v. Norfolk Southern Railway Co., No. 21-1248, 2022 WL 128487 (4th Cir. 1/14/22).
Takeaway for employers: Tread carefully when seeking medical records — but if you reasonably believe they are needed to evaluate fitness to do the job, your request likely meets the ADA requirement that it is job-related and consistent with business necessity.