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Federal Case Highlights Potential for Disability Discrimination Claims When Using Pre-employment Health Screening

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A plaintiff who was found not medically qualified for employment as firefighter/emergency medical technician following a pre-employment health screening will be permitted to take her case to trial the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania recently ruled. The Court's decision illustrates that pre-employment medical screenings can lead to disability discrimination claims and underscores the need for employers to proceed cautiously when contemplating a decision not to hire based on screening results.

The plaintiff in Hartley v. The Boeing Co., No. 19-373 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 30, 2019), applied for a position as a firefighter/emergency medical technician and was required to complete a pre-employment medical screening. In connection with the screening, she disclosed to the defendant (i.e., her prospective employer) that she had been discharged from prior military service due to a back injury. She also provided documentation from her primary care doctor indicating that there were no restrictions on her ability to work, and authorized the defendant to access her medical records. The records contained extensive documentation of plaintiff seeking medical care for back pain, even after she applied for the position.

A health care provider acting on behalf of the defendant ultimately examined the plaintiff. The results of the examination were "unremarkable," meaning the examination revealed no reason why the plaintiff would be unable to perform the job. However, the health care provider also reviewed the plaintiff's medical records. Based on the information in those records concerning the plaintiff's medical treatment for her back, the defendant determined that she was not medically qualified for the job. The plaintiff was not hired, and ultimately brought suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Pennsylvania Human Relations Act. In response, the defendant asserted that it did not hire the plaintiff because the physical nature of the position made it dangerous for someone with back problems to perform (i.e., that the plaintiff, if hired, would pose a direct threat to herself or others).

The defendant moved for summary judgment on the plaintiff's claims. The Court denied the motion, noting that: i) a discrepancy existed between the "unremarkable" results of plaintiff's examination by defendant's health care provider and the ultimate decision that she would nonetheless pose a risk; and ii) an independent expert hired by the defendant never actually examined the plaintiff in person. On this basis, the court determined that a reasonable jury could conclude that the defendant did not actually believe that the plaintiff posed a risk, but rather simply did not want to hire her because of her perceived back injury.

This case illustrates the need for caution when deciding not to hire a candidate based on the results of a pre-employment medical inquiry, particularly when the candidate has provided documentation from a medical provider that he or she can perform the job and the employer's actual examination has found no reason to indicate otherwise. Given the safety-sensitive nature of the job in this case, the employer was undoubtedly in a tough spot. In similar situations, conferring with qualified employment law counsel can be a key step in minimizing the chance of a claim if the decision is made not to hire.

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