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In a recent district court ruling in Illinois, organizations faced with Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) actions can now request that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) produce claimants’ medical and work records, as well as their work history. This ruling clearly indicates that courts will uphold discovery propounded upon the EEOC in ADA actions and serves as a guidepost for the scope of discovery to plaintiffs.

Applicants Must Undertake a Medical Evaluation and Nerve Conduction Test

The EEOC filed a lawsuit against Amsted Rail Co. alleging violations of the ADA. (EEOC v. Amsted RailCo., Inc., Case No. 14-cv-1292, (USDC SD Illinois). Amsted operates a facility in Granite City, Illinois, where it employs individuals as “chippers.” A chipper’s duties include using a hammer or grinder to remove metal protrusions from steel castings. The EEOC alleged that Amsted required those applying for positions as chippers to submit to a medical evaluation, which included a medical history questionnaire and a nerve conduction test.

In 2011, an applicant with a history of carpal tunnel syndrome, applied to be a chipper and was offered the position contingent upon passing the medical evaluation. After completing the evaluation, Amsted declined to hire the applicant on the grounds that he was not medically qualified. The EEOC claimed in this case that, starting in late 2010, Amsted violated the ADA when it denied the applicant and a class of 43 other job applicants employment: (1) because it regarded them as disabled based on the results of a nerve conduction test; or, (2) because they had a record of disability, carpal tunnel syndrome.

During discovery, Amsted requested from the EEOC the medical records and prior employment records of the job applicants the EEOC was representing in the case. The magistrate held a hearing on the discovery dispute and issued a February 26, 2016 order that the interrogatories be answered and the requested documents be produced.  In March, 2016, the EEOC objected and the district court reviewed the record before the magistrate.

Magistrate Ordered the EEOC to Provide Medical Records and Histories

Magistrate Judge Williams ordered the EEOC to provide information as to all claimants about all medical providers and treatment within the requested time period without limitation. He reasoned that mental health or medical treatment prior to Amsted’s employment decision is relevant to the causation and magnitude of emotional distress suffered after the failure to hire. He further found that approximately five years prior to the alleged discriminatory acts to be a reasonable period for such an inquiry in an interrogatory.

In the request to produce, Amsted asked the EEOC to produce documents, including medical records, indicating a claimant’s inability to work beginning in 2009, approximately two years before the alleged discriminatory conduct. The EEOC objected to production of documents regarding conditions that ended before a claimant applied to work at Amsted as overly broad, unduly burdensome and irrelevant. Magistrate Judge Williams ordered that responsive documents in a claimant’s possession, including medical documents, be produced. If the claimant had applied for disability benefits, the EEOC must produce documents submitted in support of the claim and documents indicating the disposition of the claim.

In another request for production, Amsted asked the EEOC to produce all medical records for each claimant beginning in 2005. The EEOC limited its response consistent with its response to Interrogatories, objecting to the full request as overly burdensome, overly broad and irrelevant. For the same reasons applicable to his ruling on the Interrogatories, Magistrate Judge Williams overruled the EEOC’s blanket objection. He ordered the EEOC to produce all responsive documents within a claimant’s possession, subject to redactions to be worked out between the parties or decided by the court on a case by case basis, or to produce an authorization for Amsted to obtain the claimant’s medical records.

District Judge Gilbert ruled that it was not an error to conclude that the evidence sought was relevant to the question of damages, at least as long as emotional distress remained an issue. Furthermore, Magistrate Judge Williams was correct that responses to Interrogatories required only provider names and the general nature and duration of the treatment, not any privileged matter or details of the treatment. Finally, to the extent privileged material is reflected in the medical records, Magistrate Judge Williams did not abuse his discretion in ordering the parties to attempt to work out appropriate redactions, with the understanding that any objections to redactions would be reviewed by the court on a case by case basis if challenged.  Production of other private information could be appropriately protected by the HIPAA-qualified protective order in place.

The district court, in upholding the discovery rulings, noted that Magistrate Williams had considered the importance of the discovery to the claimants’ emotional distress claims, the fact that Amsted had little access to this information in any other way, the burden of production compared to its benefit, and the possibility that privileged information may need to be protected from disclosure by redaction.

Magistrate Orders EEOC to Turn Over Employment and Income Records

Amsted asked the EEOC to provide income information for each claimant beginning two years before each claimant applied to work at Amsted, regardless of the source of the income. The EEOC responded with information beginning from each claimant’s application and excluded income from third-party benefits such as social security or worker’s compensation, objecting that a broader response would not be relevant. Magistrate Judge Williams found that earned income information covering the two years prior to a claimant’s application was relevant to a claimant’s mitigation of damages, that is, what the claimant would have been able to earn after Amsted turned him or her down. As for third-party benefits, Magistrate Judge Williams held that whether a claimant received third-party benefits as a result of an inability to work (e.g., Social Security disability benefits, other disability insurance benefits, worker’s compensation) is relevant to whether the claimant was a qualified individual under the ADA, that is, whether they could perform essential job functions, but that the amount of those benefits is not relevant. Accordingly, Magistrate Judge Williams ruled that the EEOC need not provide the amount of the benefit but it must provide the date of the request for benefits, the period benefits were paid and the justification for granting the benefits.

Amsted also asked the EEOC to provide each claimant’s work history beginning in high school. The EEOC objected to the request for pre-application information as irrelevant. For the same reasons applicable to his ruling on Interrogatories, Magistrate Judge Williams found that work history beginning two years before each claimant’s application to work at Amsted was relevant and directed the EEOC to provide that information. Amsted asked the EEOC to produce documents indicating a claimant’s income beginning in 2009. For the same reasons applicable to his ruling on Interrogatories, Magistrate Judge Williams ordered production of documents showing income earned during the two years before a claimant applied to work for Amsted. Magistrate Judge Williams noted that this could be accomplished by producing W2s or paycheck stubs, or if those documents were not available, redacted tax returns in a claimant’s possession.  Finally, Amsted asked the EEOC to produce documents indicating employment benefits (like 401K plans) beginning two years before a claimant’s application to work at Amsted. Magistrate Judge Williams interpreted the request to seek documents indicating benefits received by a claimant during that time period and ordered production of such documents in a claimant’s possession.

The EEOC argued work history that predates a claimant’s application to work at Amsted is irrelevant to the issue of back pay, which is only impacted by a claimant’s work history after Amsted’s alleged discriminatory conduct. The EEOC criticized Magistrate Judge Williams’ relevance analysis regarding mitigation of damages because he posited a claimant might have had the ability to get a better paying job than the one he or she applied for at Amsted when the law only requires efforts to get a substantially equivalent job. The EEOC also argued a claimant’s receipt of benefits from third parties for an inability to work before application to Amsted is not relevant to back pay or mitigation of damages or to Amsted’s reasons for failing to hire a claimant.

District Court Judge Gilbert found it was not error to conclude that two years of pre-application employment evidence was relevant to the claimant’s mitigation of damages in that his or her ability to get another job would depend on his prior work and earned income history. The district court also upheld Magistrate Judge Williams finding that a claimant’s statements to a third-party benefit provider regarding his or her ability to work during the two years before applying to Amsted is relevant to whether he or she was qualified for the chipper position at Amsted. Thus, documents relating to those claims, other than amounts awarded in benefits, were properly found to be discoverable.

This opinion is a clear indication that courts will uphold discovery propounded upon the EEOC, or individual plaintiffs, that relate to the medical or employment history of claimants in ADA actions. This opinion serves as a guidepost for the scope of discovery to plaintiffs in ADA actions.