Why Were You Absent? Inquiring Minds Want To Know

April 19, 2012

If one of your employees is absent for work due to illness, does your company’s policy require the employee to identify the nature of the health-related reason for absence?  If so, your policy may be unlawful under the American’s With Disabilities Act (ADA).  InEEOC v. Dillard’s, a federal district court in California ruled that just such a policy violated the ADA.

In the case, an employee was absent for a week for health-related reasons.  The employee provided her employer with a note from her doctor which simply indicated “off work this week return 6/5/06.”  The employee’s manager refused to excuse the absence because, according to Dillard’s policy, the doctor’s note did not state the nature of the condition being treated.  The employee refused to supply any additional information and was terminated for absenteeism.

After filing a charge of discrimination with the EEOC, the Commission sued Dillard’s on behalf of the employee and “other similarly situated individuals” (class action).  The EEOC claimed the policy violated the ADA’s prohibition of inquiries into disability-related issues.  The court agreed with the EEOC finding that the policy invited intrusive questions about employees’ medical conditions that would reveal information about actual or perceived disabilities.  While Dillard’s claimed that the information was necessary to verify legitimate medical absences, the court disagreed indicating that it did not need to know the nature of the medical condition to accomplish this goal.

Why This Is Important For You

If you have a current policy that requires employees to provide a doctor’s note specifying the nature of the health-related problem, change the policy to require only a doctor’s note that provides the dates that the employee was absent from work due to the health-related reason.  Also, when the employee returns, managers should avoid asking the employee questions about the nature of the health-related reason for absence—even if they are entirely innocent and done so out of care for the employee.

If you have any questions related to issue, please contact us.