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Lee v. City of Columbus

Appeals Court Fails to Extend Protection Against Intrusive Disability-Related Inquiries

A federal appeals court upheld a public employer's policies requiring employees to detail their illnesses on returning from sick leave.


The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act prohibit discrimination by state and local government against people with disabilities or erroneously regarded as having disabilities. Both laws prohibit government and private employers from requiring employees to disclose personal medical data except in limited circumstances and presume such data is confidential. Thus, such data only may be required if an employer seeks to verify an employee's request for "reasonable accommodation" on the job, or if an employer can demonstrate that a "disability-related inquiry" is "necessary," not merely convenient.

A threshold issue is whether an employer inquiry is "disability-related," especially when employers do not expressly ask about a "disability," but ask in a way that may reveal a disability.  

Columbus, Ohio, has a directive requiring employees returning from sick leave of three days or more to supply a doctor's note to their supervisor explaining "the nature of the illness" that caused them to be out on leave. The city justifies this requirement based on concern about the cost of employee "sick leave abuse." In fact, the city never has analyzed the extent of such supposed abuse of sick leave. A trial court found the city failed to justify the directive as a matter of "business necessity" under the Rehabilitation Act, pointing to an earlier ADA case in which AARP attorneys won limits on New York State's questioning of prison guards as to medical grounds for taking sick leave. The city appealed.

AARP's "friend of the court" brief prepared by AARP Foundation Litigation attorneys pointed out that both the ADA and Rehabilitation Act, as well as their implementing regulations, state that access to employee medical data is strictly limited, information is presumed to be confidential and uses of such data is circumscribed. The brief also noted that while the city could have requested a doctor's note simply confirming that the employee needed sick leave as requested (without more details), the city elected to go further and inquire as to the "nature of the illness."

A federal appeals court upheld the directive, concluding it did not amount to a "disability-related" inquiry. The court distinguished the earlier case, finding the ADA provides employees greater protection than the Rehabilitation Act. The court expressed confidence that the city protected employees' confidentiality by prohibiting sharing of information from doctors' notes.

What's at Stake

About half of AARP's members are employed. Older persons are especially at risk of being subject to disability-related workplace discrimination. If employers are permitted to require sensitive medical data without having to justify the disclosure on business-related and narrowly crafted grounds, the risk of disability-related bias rises.

Status of the Case

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the decision in Lee v. City of Columbus and remanded it to the trial court for judgment in favor of the city.

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