Today in Heipel v. Henderson et al., the Oregon Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment on an Oregon disability discrimination claim in favor of an employer who asked an employee to take an independent medical exam (IME) as part of an investigation into the employee’s disturbing work-related behavior. The court confirmed that such exams must be "job related and consistent with business necessity," and that the exam in this case met those criteria.
Plaintiff Barbara Heipel worked for the Oregon Employment Department. Her supervisors received an escalating string of complaints about her job performance and erratic behavior. Her actions included:
- standing in the bathroom in a "trance" pulling out paper towels into an overflowing trash can;
- leaning against a bathroom stall in a "despondent state";
- total loss of emotional control with supervisors and coworkers;
- accusing her coworkers of stealing shredded documents from a trash can and pasting them together for personal use; and
- false and contradictory complaints to customers about her employer and coworkers.
Heipel’s employer asked her to take an IME to determine whether she posed a threat to herself and others and whether she could perform the essential functions of her position. Plaintiff refused, and the Employment Department terminated her for refusing. Plaintiff filed a lawsuit claiming, among other things, that her employer had unlawfully discriminated against her under Oregon employment statutes for having a disability.
ORS 659A.136(1) provides that such examinations are appropriate only where they are "job related and consistent with business necessity." The Oregon Court of Appeals, relying on federal cases in the Sixth and Eighth Circuits, ruled that, under these circumstances, the requested exam met both requirements.
This decision should not be seen as a blanket endorsement of all IMEs in the workplace. Although this exam was ruled appropriate, the Court of Appeals’ inquiry was fact-specific — and the facts here were unusual. Employers should understand the risk of requesting such exams and should carefully evaluate the individual circumstances before forging ahead.