Job-Related Disability Inquiry Allowed After Classroom Panic Attack

By Alyssa L. Levy

A recent 10th Circuit decision exemplifies the types of inquiries an employer may make under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – ones which are “job-related and consistent with business necessity.”  The ADA otherwise prohibits an employer from asking an employee about an actual or perceived disability. 

In Fisher v. Basehor-Linwood Unified School District No. 458, a principal asked a teacher about her mental health – specifically about her meeting with her psychiatrist – following a panic attack she had experienced in her classroom that rendered her unable to supervise students. The principal, in asking about the psychiatrist appointment, sought information about the teacher’s ability to perform the essential functions of her job: teaching and supervising students. Even though the teacher considered the psychiatrist appointment part of her personal life, the underlying need for the psychiatrist directly related to her job performance.

The principal’s inquiry was also consistent with the business needs of the school to maintain a safe and appropriate learning environment. The school identified legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons to doubt the teacher’s capacity to perform her duties. In addition to the panic attack incident, the teacher also discussed her mental health issues with students when they were supposed to be attending a mandatory school assembly, and then asked the students to lie about their conversation and delete their text messages about the incidents.

Analysis of job-relatedness and business necessity is required before asking about an employee’s physical or mental health.  Although the court in Fisher found that requisite connection, each scenario calls for unique analysis.  Particularly as the pandemic has brought medical issues into the workplace like never before, an employer may find itself in trouble by making inquiries not permitted under the ADA.  Fisher is a good reminder of this extremely relevant issue.