Q: I was diagnosed with a spine compression fracture and severe depression. I want to request leave but want to keep my privacy at work. Do I need to tell my employer about my medical or psychological condition?
A: No. The employee is not required to disclose the nature of the employee's medical condition or disability (i.e., their diagnosis). The employee is required only to provide reasonable medical documentation which describes the employee's physical or mental limitations, which may prevent them from doing their work. For example, the medical documentation may simply state that the employee is restricted from lifting more than 25 lbs.
The employer cannot inquire into the “nature or severity” of the employee's disability. The employer cannot ask for the employee's complete medical records as those records may be unrelated to the need for accommodation. The employer also cannot ask the employee about the underlying medical cause of the disability (unless such a medical examination is “job-related” and “consistent with business necessity”).
How much of an employee's medical condition should be disclosed to the employer? If an employee's disability or medical condition is not obvious, the employer may request the employee to provide reasonable medical documentation confirming the existence of the disability and the need for reasonable accommodation. That medical documentation may contain the following:
a) The name and credentials of the health care provider
b) Certification from the medical provider that the employee has a physical or mental condition that limits a major life activity or a medical condition, and a description of why the employee needs a reasonable accommodation.
There is a need for ‘reasonable accommodation' if the employee's medical condition limits a major life activity, such as doing the necessary tasks that the work requires. To have a limitation in the performance of a major life activity is to have a disability. Reasonable accommodation may include granting or extending leave from work to allow medical treatments, offering part-time or modified work schedules, or making facilities accessible to disabled individuals.
Even if the medical condition does not limit any major life activities (i.e., there is no disability), the employee is still entitled to reasonable accommodation if he or she needs to be absent from work for medical treatments or doctor appointments.
For the employer to provide reasonable accommodation to the employee, the employer must know that the employee needs such accommodation. The employer knows an employee has a disability when the employee tells the employer about the condition, or when the employer becomes aware of the condition, such as through a third party or by observation. Thus, if the employee's disability becomes known or obvious, the employer must engage the employee in a timely, good faith interactive process to determine if reasonable accommodation can be made for the employee. The employer must start the interactive process.
Lastly, California law prohibits discrimination based on disability or medical condition. An employer may not terminate or demote an employee based on the employee's disability or medical condition.