From the desk of Linda Carter Batiste, J.D., Principal Consultant/Legislative Specialist
In the workplace, some people share personal information freely, including medical information. Others may prefer to keep their personal lives private. However, people with disabilities who need workplace accommodations may have to choose between their privacy and their obligation to provide information to their employers. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers can require limited medical information instead of just accepting that an employee has a disability and needs an accommodation. If an employee doesn’t respond to a valid request for medical information, the employer does not have a duty to move forward with the accommodation request. But employees aren’t always sure what employers can request and may be concerned that they’re being asked to provide too much medical information. And if they believe a request is improper, they may not know what to do about it. For these employees, the following information may be useful:
What medical information can an employer require in response to an accommodation request?
When your disability and need for accommodation are not obvious, your employer can ask for “reasonable” documentation. Reasonable documentation means that your employer can only ask for enough documentation to show that you have a disability and that the disability creates your need for an accommodation. Employers cannot ask for documentation that is not relevant to your request. For example, in most situations your employer cannot ask for all of your medical records because they are likely to contain irrelevant information.
For more information, see questions 6 and 8 at EEOC's Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
What information might show you have a disability?
Only employees who have a disability or a record of a disability are entitled to accommodations under the ADA so an employer can ask you for “sufficient” medical documentation to determine whether you have a disability. The definition of disability is an impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities or a record of such an impairment. So, you will need to provide enough information to prove that you have (or had) an impairment that substantially limits at least one major life activity.
For more information, see: What Does “Sufficient” Mean? - A Deconstructive Series for ADA Terminology.
What information might show why you need an accommodation?
Even if you have a disability under the ADA, you’re only entitled to accommodations that are needed because of limitations associated with your disability. Therefore, employers can ask for documentation that shows why you need an accommodation. Showing why you need an accommodation usually means verifying what disability-related limitation is creating a problem at work. Keep in mind, this limitation may be different than the limitation that was used to prove your disability. Your employer also needs to understand how the limitation is interfering with job performance or your ability to access a benefit of employment. Here are some examples of what a health care professional might say:
- Because of Patient X’s depression and associated concentration problems, she is having difficulty completing reports on time.
- Because of Patient X’s rotator cuff injury and his associated limitations of lifting no more than 25 pounds, pushing/pulling no more than 50 pounds, and no overhead work, he is having difficulty moving some of the boxes in the warehouse.
- Because of Patient X’s progressive vision loss and associated blurred vision, she is having difficulty reading her computer screen.
What can employees do if they think a request for medical documentation is improper?
If you think your employer is asking for more medical documentation than allowed, you should not just ignore the request or refuse to provide the information without letting your employer know why. Under the ADA, if an employee does not provide sufficient medical documentation as requested, the employer does not have a duty to continue the accommodation process. If an employer believes that an employee failed to provide documentation without a valid reason, the employer may be justified in refusing to provide an accommodation. So, it’s important to go on record that you’re challenging the request for medical documentation rather than flat out refusing to comply with it.
If you decide to challenge a request for medical documentation, how do you do it? There are a couple things you might consider doing. One is to have your health care provider write a letter in support of your accommodation and just provide the medical information you believe is required. You can then give the letter to your employer along with your own letter stating that you believe you have provided sufficient documentation. We have the following publication: Practical Guidance for Medical Professionals: Providing Sufficient Medical Documentation in Support of a Patient's Accommodation Request.
If your employer asks you to sign a release so the employer can send questions directly to your health care provider and you think the release is too broad, you can try changing it before you sign it.
Another option is to put something in writing to your employer before you ask your health care provider for documentation. Here are some ideas about what you might include. This is not intended to be legal advice.
- Acknowledge your receipt of the request for medical documentation
- State that you understand that you must provide sufficient documentation and are willing to do so
- Explain which part of the request for medical information doesn’t seem to fall under the ADA rules for sufficient documentation
- Ask your employer for clarification about why this information is being requested
- Offer to meet with your employer to discuss the situation further if you’re comfortable doing so
- Refer your employer to medical documentation your previously provided if you believe you already provided sufficient documentation
If you need additional information about medical documentation under the ADA or if you would like to discuss your accommodation request, please feel free to contact JAN.