Medical Exam Failures And The Interactive Process

Written exclusively for Chubbworks

Missouri-based Hiland Dairy Foods will pay $140,000 to settle a disability discrimination lawsuit brought against it by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on behalf of an Oklahoma man the dairy plant refused to hire because of his vision impairment in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

According to the allegations contained in the lawsuit, the plant initially offered the man a position knowing he had a disability but withdrew the offer following a standard pre-employment medical exam.

The doctor allegedly stated that the man was a "safety concern" because he was "legally blind." However, the doctor never met the man or examined him, basing his assessment only on a vision test, according to the EEOC.

The EEOC further alleged that the doctor and Hiland failed to consider "assistive devices or other reasonable accommodations could have mitigated the potential safety concerns."

In addition to paying damages to the affected applicant, the five-year consent decree settling the lawsuit requires Hiland to enact policies, procedures, and employee training to comply with the ADA in the future. Hiland must also notify employees of their right to reasonable accommodation under the ADA and report periodically to the EEOC. "Hiland Dairy To Pay $140,000 To Settle EEOC Disability Discrimination Suit" (Jan. 06, 2023).

Commentary and Checklist

During the interactive process with applicants and employees, a determination can be made as to whether an individual with a disability can perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation.

This is true even if an individual with a disability “fails” a medical exam. Before assuming that the person is a direct safety threat to themselves or others, first engage in the interactive process to determine what issues could cause safety concerns and what reasonable accommodations might be available to mitigate those issues.

Unilaterally deciding that an individual with a disability cannot safely perform the job without engaging with the individual paves the way to disability discrimination allegations, even if it is ultimately determined there was no appropriate reasonable accommodation available. 

Here are some tips for engaging in the interactive process to determine reasonable accommodation options:

  • When presented with an accommodation request, evaluate the limitations, if any, that the disability creates for the applicant or employee, and how the limitations affect the individual's ability to perform the essential functions of the job, if at all. If possible, allow for an independent evaluation.
  • Identify specific job tasks that may be problematic as a result of these limitations.
  • Evaluate if the individual can perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation.
  • Determine all accommodations available to reduce or eliminate limitations by consulting medical and legal professionals, as well as support organizations for the particular disability.
  • Allow an applicant or employee with a disability to provide a list of possible accommodation solutions and incorporate the individual's doctor in the process. However, employers have the right to choose among effective accommodation options and do not have to accept the accommodation requested by the employee.
  • Establish a neutral process by which accommodation requests are evaluated to determine whether they cause an undue hardship on the employer or create a safety hazard for the employee, other employees, or third parties.
  • Provide independent proof to an applicant or employee with a disability as to why an accommodation creates an undue hardship or safety concern, and permit the employee to refute it, if possible.
  • Once accommodations are in place, meet with the employee and others to evaluate the effectiveness of the accommodations. Determine whether additional accommodations are needed.
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