Current and former employees of the City of Columbus, Division of Police, challenged the City’s Directive requiring employees returning from sick leave to submit a doctor’s note, stating the "nature of the illness" and whether the employee is capable of returning to regular duty to their immediate supervisors. The employees filed suit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, alleging that the Directive violates the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities by programs receiving federal funding. The plaintiffs also alleged that the Directive violates the privacy provisions of the First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs and entered a permanent injunction prohibiting the City from enforcing its Directive.
The Sixth Circuit Court vacated the injunction and found in favor of the City. The Court emphasized that the Rehabilitation Act expressly prohibits discrimination solely on the basis of disability. It concluded that the mere fact that the City is requesting information that may tend to lead to information about disabilities falls short of the requisite proof that the employer is discriminating solely on the basis of disability. The Court further held that because the City’s Directive is a universally applied request for information justifying the use of sick leave, it does not violate the Rehabilitation Act.
The Court also held that the plaintiffs’ privacy rights under the First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments were not violated by the requirements of the City’s directive. The Court found that the requirement that employees inform their immediate supervisors of the nature of their illness does not raise an informational-privacy concern of a constitutional dimension.
While this case, Lee v. City of Columbus, 6th Cir. No. 09-3899, confirms an employer’s ability to make inquiries about the reason for an employee’s sick leave, employers must ensure that any such policies are applied consistently and uniformly. Also, employers should be cautious when requiring doctor’s notes from those employees returning from intermittent FMLA leave. The FMLA regulations provide guidance on when and how often an employer can request medical information.