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Fitness-for-duty evaluations did not violate due process

A government employee did not have a constitutionally protected interest violated when his employer scheduled him for fitness-for-duty evaluations, a panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled, affirming summary judgment for the employer.

From 2007 to 2021, Jeffrey Capen was employed as a maintenance worker in the Saginaw County Maintenance Department.

In December 2020, a coworker reported that Capen had threatened to kill their supervisor and employees working in the Controller’s Office.

Capen was placed on paid administrative leave and scheduled for a “fitness-for-duty” evaluation with a psychologist.

In a report following the evaluation, the psychologist stated that Capen had obvious tremors in his hands, complained of “significant memory problems,” stated that he could not independently maintain written records of activities, relied on colleagues to remind him what had been done during the day and had recently been diagnosed with brain lesions.

Based on the evaluation, the psychologist concluded that Capen was unable to perform the work in his job description.

The county sent Capen a letter requesting that he apply for short-term disability leave, asking that he release his medical records and recommending an additional evaluation as he was unable to perform his current work.

Despite several follow-up letters, Capen did not release his medical records or appear for a neuropsychological evaluation.

Capen then filed suit against Saginaw County and related officials alleging a violation of his procedural rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. He specifically argued that he had a right to refuse his fitness-for-duty evaluations and that he was deprived of this right without any process.

The county moved for summary judgment and the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan granted the motion. Capen appealed but the federal appellate panel affirmed.

For both municipal and individual liability, a plaintiff’s rights under a federal statute or the U.S. Constitution must have been violated, U.S. Circuit Judge Eric L. Clay said. But Capen failed to demonstrate a violation of his federal statutory or constitutional rights.

A fitness-for-duty evaluation can function as a useful procedure to determine an employee’s competency to perform required duties and may serve important goals, such as protecting the safety of employees or the public’s safety at large.

Clay noted that sister circuits have recognized that a fitness-for-duty evaluation may trigger the protections of the Due Process Clause if it deprives a government employee of a constitutionally protected property interest in his or her employment, stigmatize a government employee’s reputation or implicate a government employee’s constitutionally protected right to privacy.

“Capen’s sole argument on appeal is that the Due Process Clause’s guarantee of liberty protects an individual’s ability to refuse unwanted medical treatment, and that this protection extends to his ability to refuse his fitness-for-duty evaluations,” Clay wrote. “However, the liberty interest in refusing medical treatment does not protect Capen’s ability to refuse the fitness-for-duty evaluations at issue in this case.”

The judge found it significant that Capen was not forced to accept any treatment; the evaluations merely sought to collect information from him and render a conclusion based on that information, rather than order him to make particular treatment decisions.

In addition, the county appeared to have a legitimate interest in seeking medical information in connection with Capen’s fitness-for-duty evaluations and did not arbitrarily subject him to the evaluation, Clay found, as it acted upon specific allegations that Capen had threatened violence.

“Even when affording due consideration to Capen’s rights as an employee, the County had a countervailing duty and responsibility to protect the interests, well-being, and safety of employees and others in the workplace against threats of violence or the potentiality of violence from other employees,” the judge wrote. “While Capen’s fitness-for-duty evaluations were no doubt stressful, deeply personal, and consequential to him, he has not shown that his ability to refuse these evaluations was protected by the Constitution.”

The case is Capen v. Saginaw County.