When an employee returns from sick leave, it is not unusual for employers to require a doctor's note to verify that the individual was ill and that he or she is well enough to execute regular duties. But in December 2007, a group of employees challenged this custom in a class action lawsuit, claiming their employer--the city of Columbus, Ohio--was violating their privacy and federal anti-discrimination laws by requiring such notes.
The case was brought under the Rehabilitation Act. Because the provision in question is similar to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a district court analyzed the issue under the ADA and found the city's directive to be overly intrusive and ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in 2009. The court also granted a permanent injunction prohibiting the city from enforcing the rule.
The 6th Circuit acknowledged in Lee that the Rehabilitation Act incorporates certain features of the ADA, but it found that the city's policy didn't trigger the ADA protections because it only required employees to disclose general information for the limited purpose of making sure an employee had a legitimate illness and was fit for duty upon his or her return. The court found that the city's rule did not intend to reveal individuals' disabilities, and furthermore, the plaintiffs had not proved that they were discriminated against solely on the basis of disability, which is a key requirement in bringing a claim under the Rehabilitation Act.
Joseph Lynett, a partner at Jackson Lewis, says Lee exposes the different outlooks of the 2nd and 6th Circuits when it comes to medical disclosure. "Lee and Conroy stand not in contradiction to each other but represent different ends of the spectrum," he says. "In between these two standards, there is very little case law, and that creates uncertainty for employers trying to determine whether a medical inquiry is appropriate."