Tonya Coffman is a firefighter with the City of Indianapolis, Indiana. In 2004, the Department’s EMS duty officer expressed concerns about Coffman’s mental well-being. The EMS Coordinator explained that in his interactions with Coffman, he noticed that she spent a lot of time alone, was quiet, reserved, and a bit defensive. The Coordinator was also mindful of the fact that two fellow firefighters committed suicide in the recent past.
Several days later, a station captain reported unusual behavior on Coffman’s part. The captain indicated that Coffman was withdrawn, did not communicate well with her fellow co-workers, and was often visited by her husband on her free time. The captain stated that “it may be in the best interest of everyone concerned that a professional be consulted.”
A third supervisor, an EMS lieutenant, expressed similar concerns about Coffman. During an EMS evaluation of Coffman, the lieutenant noted that “Coffman spent most of her time in the women’s area or with her husband, a police officer who would come by, and had little interaction with other people in the fire house.”
On the basis of the three reports, the Department ordered Coffman to participate in a psychological fitness for duty evaluation. The doctor noted that although Coffman was not experiencing any significant or disabling psychological problems, she was obviously unhappy about some aspect of her work life. The doctor recommended that Coffman be put on light duty for a period of six weeks and be referred to an individual therapist for counseling.
Eventually, Coffman filed a federal lawsuit against the City, alleging gender discrimination and harassment. One of her claims was that the order that she participate in a fitness for duty evaluation was a disguised form of gender discrimination and violated the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).
The ADA provides that employers may only compel an employee to participate in a medical examination (which includes psychological examinations) if the reason for the examination is “job-related and consistent with business necessity.” In the view of the Court considering Coffman’s lawsuit, this standard meant that “if an employer reasonably believes that its employee is having mental health issues that may affect his/her job or the safety of the employee and/or public,” it may order the examination.
The Court found that the psychological examination did not violate the ADA. The Court commented that “Coffman’s position as an employee with the Fire Department certainly presents safety concerns, not only for employees of the Department, but also for the public at large. There is nothing in the record to suggest that the concerns expressed by the three supervisors were insincere or motivated by an improper purpose. It was entirely reasonable for the Department to rely on those reports in making their decision to refer Coffman for a fitness for duty examination. The ADA does not, indeed cannot, require a police or fire department to forego a fitness for duty examination to wait until a perceived threat becomes real or questionable behavior results in injuries.”
Coffman v. Indianapolis Fire Department, 2008 WL 169824 (S.D.Ind. 2008).
This article appears in the March 2008 issue