Under What Circumstances are Job-Related Medical Inquiries Allowed

We’ve all been hearing a lot this campaign season about the relative health conditions of the candidates for President of the United States.  We have been privy to letters from doctors attesting to the well-being of both candidates as well as significant commentary about whether those letters are true and accurate.  Everyone, from politician to pundit to private citizen, seems to have an opinion on whether either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump is physically fit to serve as President.

Then, this week while attending an event commemorating the fifteenth anniversary of the September 11th attack, Hillary Clinton appeared to collapse on stage and had to be helped to her car.  The fallout has been dramatic, with articles and rumors circulating about the cause of her collapse.  The Clinton camp quickly explained that the candidate had been campaigning while suffering from pneumonia and that she collapsed as a result of related dehydration and exhaustion.  Clinton’s doctor has since circulated a letter confirming as much.  Despite that explanation, we are now seeing articles accusing Clinton and her campaign of a “lack of transparency” and asserting that, as a candidate for president, she had an obligation to announce her diagnosis of pneumonia to the voting public.

Given all of this buzz and a general sentiment among the public that we are entitled to information about the health status and medical conditions of those running for President, we thought it would be a good time to set out when job-related medical inquiries are permitted under the law.  After all, the candidates for President are nothing more than high profile potential new hires and the voting public nothing more than the world’s largest hiring committee.  So what are we entitled to ask of these candidates and when?  And how much of an answer do they have to provide?  In most workplaces, the answers to these questions are dictated by the Americans With Disabilities Act (also known as the “ADA”) and will depend upon the nature of the job at issue and when in the employment relationship the inquiry is made.

Hiring Process Medical Inquiries

Employers are generally not allowed to ask job candidates during the application and interview process whether they suffer from a disability.  This means that an employer cannot ask direct questions of an applicant regarding his or her medical condition and it cannot force an applicant to undergo a medical examination.  Further, even where a disability is obvious or visible (for instance, if an employer can see that the applicant walks with a cane), the employer cannot inquire into the extent or severity of the visible disability.  Job applicants are to be considered for vacant positions as equals without medical condition playing a role in the hiring decisions.

However, an employer may inquire into an applicant’s ability to perform the essential functions of the job for which he or she is being considered.  So, for instance, an employer can ask a candidate whether he or she is able to lift a certain amount of weight.  Obviously, the answer to this question may be impacted by a candidate’s medical status; however, if the job at hand actually requires an employee to be able to lift that much weight, the inquiry is allowed.

Post-Job Offer Medical Inquiries

Once an individual has been made a job offer, an employer may condition that offer upon the applicant undergoing a medical examination to ensure that the applicant is fit for duty.  However, this examination is only allowed where it is required of every new hire (not just those with disabilities), where the results of the examination are kept confidential and maintained separately from the employee’s standard personnel file, and where the results are used only to ensure that the potential new hire can perform the essential functions of the job which he or she has been offered.

Post-Hire Medical Inquiries

Finally, once an employee has been hired and begun to work, there are only very narrow conditions which justify a medical inquiry or examination under the ADA.  Specifically, an employer may only inquire into an employee’s medical condition or require a medical examination when that inquiry is deemed “job-related and consistent with business necessity.”  While this standard is not defined by the statute, the EEOC has explained that a medical inquiry may be job-related and consistent with business necessity where 1) an employer has a reasonable belief, based on objective evidence, that an employee’s ability to perform essential job functions will be impaired by a medical condition; 2) that an employee will pose a direct threat to coworkers, customers,  or him or herself due to a medical condition; or 3) where an employee has made a request for a reasonable accommodation based on a medical condition which is unknown and not obvious.  Similarly, an employer may inquire into the nature, severity, and likely duration of a medical condition when an employee makes a request for a medical leave under another federal statute, the Family & Medical Leave Act or FMLA.

One important caveat to all of these permitted medical inquiries is that even where an employer is permitted to make a medical inquiry, an employer is not allowed to use the results of that inquiry as a basis to discriminate against a disabled employee.


So, what’s the verdict?  Is the general-public-as-hiring-committee entitled to know what ailments Clinton or Trump may have?  Do we have a right to expect transparency from a campaign when a candidate is diagnosed with an illness or a disability?  And if we see the candidate collapse or have some other obvious and visible indication that the candidate may be ill or disabled, does that give us the right to demand more information?  Generally speaking, the answer to all of these questions is no.  While we are certainly entitled to ask candidates to verify that they are medically able to perform the functions of the job of President of the United States, that’s really all we get to know.

And, if you consider this legal standard in the context of history, it really makes a lot of sense.  After all, we have had many Presidents and other elected officials who have successfully done their jobs while disabled or ill.  For instance, Franklin Roosevelt had polio, James Madison had epilepsy, and quite a few past presidents (including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Kennedy) had learning disabilities.  Now whether you think these Presidents were good at their jobs will likely depend upon your political leanings, but no one can assert that their respective medical conditions prohibited them from getting the job done.

This legal standard also makes a lot of sense in the context of the average person’s experience.  The last American census indicated that 19% of the public suffers from some sort of disability.  Yes many of those individuals get up and go into work daily and make important contributions to our workforce, our economy, and our community.

The takeaway here is that while we may sometimes be curious about a coworker or subordinate’s medical condition, for the most part it is none of our business.  And, if you are an individual working with a disability, remember that you have a right to privacy regarding your condition unless that condition impacts your ability to perform your job.  These issues can be nuanced and tricky and, if you have any questions beyond these general guidelines, feel free to give us a call.