Legal Spotlight: An agency's prerogative to set and enforce medical guidelines

An all-too-common issue encountered by departments revolves around medical inquiries concerning acknoweldged or perceived disabiling conditions. Can an agency make an inquiry into an officer's current medical status? This situation may involve a long-time employee or a veteran returning to duty after serving overseas. The answer to the "Can we" question is often: a) don't know or b) don't think so. In fact, the former should not be the case and to the latter the answer is "Yes" when properly conducted and justified.

A recent decision by the Merit Systems Protection Board provides guidance in this situation. In Archerada v Department of Defense, Agency (Docket No. SF-0752-12-0208-I-1, July 11, 2014), the appellant was a firefighter and a former U. S. Air Force Reservist Firefighter partially disabiled due to Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The employing agency's physician and physician's assistant repeatedly requested documentation from the appellant regarding his diagnosis and prognosis; the appellant did not comply with the request and subsequently filed suit claiming discrimination in violation of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The current case is a review of a previous Board decision.

In the action, the Board upheld as lawful the agency's request for medical documentation pursuant to its authority to establish medical and physical fitness guidelines and standards. The inquiry was deemed job-related and consistent with business necessity because the employer had a reasonable belief, based on objective evidence, that 1) the employee's ability to perform essential job functions will be impaired by his current medical condition and 2) the employee will pose a direct threat due to his medical condition.

Direct threat means a significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the individual or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation. {29 C.F.R. 1630.2(r)}

The agency's actions, which highlight the need for a systematic approach, coupled with the implementation of medical evaluation and clearance programs for public safety personnel and related safety sensitive/critical occupations, will ensure that there are no medical and/or medication issues likely to adversely affect safe and efficient job performance or undermine the agency’s commitment to maintaining a safe working environment for all employees.

Clearly, this represents a good playbook for us to reference.

This entry is intended to inform and should not be construed as legal opinion nor a replacement for sound legal counsel.

Stay Safe, Stay Strong