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Employers Imposing Physicals and Other Tests Must Demonstrate the Business Necessity
Published Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand the Eighth Circuit's determination that a trucking company did not violate federal disability laws by suspending an overweight driver for refusing to undergo a medical examination to determine whether he had sleep apnea.

The case concerned the Americans with Disabilities Act requirement that where employers use medical examinations to screen employees the employer bears the burden of establishing that the test is job related, consistent with business necessity and not more intrusive than necessary. The employer had adopted a program requiring all truck drivers with a Body Mass Index (“BMI”) of more than 35 percent undergo a sleep study to see if they had sleep apnea, which can cause people to fall asleep behind the wheel. The lower courts found that the employer, Crete Carrier Corp., had carried its burden and granted summary judgment in Crete’s favor.

The Plaintiff, Robert J. Parker, had sued Crete after refusing to partake in the sleep study. He claimed that a note from his physician’s assistant, expressing his belief that the proposed exam was not medically necessary in Parker’s case, made the requirement illegal.

In adopting the requirement that drivers with a BMI of 35 percent or above undergo in-lab sleep studies, Crete had followed recommendations from two advisory committees to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Relying on this, the Court found that Crete established that the test was related to the job and consistent with business necessity and that the requirement was not more intrusive than necessary.

The Eighth Circuit rejected Parker’s assertion that his lack of documented sleep issues at work, the doctor's note and his receipt of a Department of Transportation certification and an award for five years of accident-free driving should have excluded him from the type of workers required to undergo the studies. “The characteristics that Parker points to do not undermine Crete's reasonable basis for concluding he poses a genuine safety risk," the opinion reads. "None of the characteristics establish that he does not suffer from sleep apnea. Crete carries its burden of showing it defined the class reasonably."

Employers will not often have the benefit of a federally sponsored study to support a requirement that employees undergo a medical examination. Those employers that refuse employment or rescind job offers based on the failure to either take or pass the required medical test must be prepared to prove that the test was related to the job, consistent with business necessity and not more intrusive than necessary.

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