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Employer’s Forced Medical Exam Fails to Support Employee Termination

Cecilia Whitten worked for McLeod Health Inc., writing its internal employee newsletter. In the general course of preparing her newsletter, she would travel to the various campuses maintained by McLeod. Whitten was born with a physical disability called “post axial hypoplasia of the lower extremity.” This disability impacted her ability to walk. Nevertheless, Whitten performed her position without issue for nearly three decades. At some point, Whitten began to have more difficulty with movement, and she began to fall more frequently. Her manager, with the company’s support, asked that she undergo a fitness for duty medical examination. According to McLeod, they were concerned that she would not be able to get to each of the campuses because she seemed “sluggish” and winded after walking. As a result of the exam, Whitten was given medical restrictions on her movements. She requested accommodations to address these restrictions. McLeod responded by placing her on leave because she would not be able to travel between campuses and then fired her.
After the district court dismissed her case on summary judgment, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed her claims. The primary question before the court was whether going between McLeod’s hospital campuses was an essential function of Whitten’s position. McLeod’s written description of the position did not mention going between campuses for events or in-person interviews. Whitten’s testimony reflected that she did not think it was necessarily a part of her job, and she was able to collect the same information over the phone. The circuit court also considered McLeod’s request for a medical examination of questionable lawfulness because “it was not reasonable for McLeod to believe that she had become a direct threat to herself on the job simply because (a) she had fallen multiple times recent and (b) her manager thought she looked groggy and out of breath.” Summary judgment was reversed and her case may proceed.