The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a disabled individual as a person who suffers from a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, or has a record of such impairment, or is being regarded as having such impairment. The “regarded as” provision was established to combat erroneous perceptions that might work to the disadvantage of individuals with impairments that might not rise to the level of an actual disability. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld summary judgment in favor of an employer who discharged an individual after that person’s physician found that she was not “fit for duty” as an emergency dispatcher. Wisbey v. City of Lincoln, Nebraska, 8th Circ., No. 09-2100, July 6, 2010. There, the court held that if an action taken by an employer is based upon the recommendation of physicians, then it is not based on myths or stereotypes about impaired individuals, and cannot then establish a violation of the “regarded as” provision of the ADA.

Charlene Wisbey began working as an emergency dispatcher for the City of Lincoln, Nebraska in 1979, and successfully held that position until early in 2007. The position requires dispatchers to “think and act quickly and calmly in emergency situations,” and to “function accurately while working under considerable pressure.

On February 27, 2007, Wisbey applied for intermittent FMLA leave on the basis of depression and anxiety. Her FMLA application stated that she had a serious health condition that rendered her unable to perform the essential functions of her job, and was supported by a medical certification from her physician saying that Wisbey suffered from recurring cycle depression and anxiety that interfered with her sleep, energy, motivation, and concentration. The certification included the fact that Wisbey would need to take time off work on an intermittent basis for “6 months or longer.”

In response to the doctor’s evaluation of Wisbey, the City asked Wisbey to undergo a fitness-for-duty examination with a psychiatrist. During her examination, Wisbey described her battle with depression and stated that the emergency nature of her job worsened her condition. After the exam, the psychiatrist submitted a report that stated that Wisbey was not able to fulfill the duties set forth in her job description. The City ultimately terminated Wisbey’s employment, based upon the findings during the fitness-for-duty examination. Wisbey filed suit that included an allegation that her termination was a violation of the ADA. The lower court granted the City’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed the case. That decision was upheld on appeal by the Eighth Circuit.

Because Wisbey conceded that she was not have a disability or a substantially limiting impairment, she brought her claim under the “regarded as” provision of the ADA, arguing that the City perceived her as disabled and fired her because of that. However, in order for an employee to be regarded as disabled, an employer must mistakenly believe that an actual impairment substantially limits that person’s ability to work. Wisbey’s employment was terminated when she was found by a medical provider not to have been fit for duty as an emergency dispatcher. Therefore, the City did not “mistakenly” belive that Wisbey had an impairment that substantially limited her ability to work – she really was unable to do her job due to her condition. Further, while Wisbey argued that the fitness-for-duty exam itself was a violation of the ADA, that law allows employers to require a medical exam if such exam is “shown to be job-related and consistent with business necessity.” The dispatcher job required an ability to focus and concentrate at all times. Wisbey’s own statements regarding her inability to do that was sufficient business justification for the City to ask for an examination to determine whether she could safely continue in that job.

While this decision might seem like a semantic one, it is critical to employers. This case underscores the fact that employers are permitted to use reasonable means to determine whether an employee’s troubling behavior or behavior-related job difficulties limit that person’s ability to do his or her job, and that such reasonable means do not justify an ADA claim. Fitness-for-duty exams typically have been considered by courts to be a reasonable means of making that determination. The reasonableness of an exam will be underscored when the employer can articulate legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons to question the employee’s ability to perform his or her duties.