When Doctors Disagree: Conflicting Medical Opinions In Return To Work Situations

January 22, 2019

What are employers supposed to do when they receive conflicting medical opinions about the status of their employee’s ability to return to work? A recent case out of United States Court of the Appeals for the Sixth Circuit demonstrates one way employers can handle this complicated situation.

In this case, after two years of rehabilitation and physical therapy, a refinery employee working for an oil and gas company provided a form signed by his personal doctor releasing him to work without restrictions. Pursuant to a requirement in the collective bargaining agreement applicable to the employee, a company doctor examined the employee and found that the employee still had “definite issues as far as balance, coordination, and loss of fine motor skills.” After several months, the two doctors finally spoke and agreed that the employee should be restricted to office work. A few more months later the doctors released the employee to return to work without restrictions. The employee sued the company for disability discrimination and claimed that the company doctor’s original opinion was flawed, which delayed his return to work.

The Sixth Circuit rejected the employee’s claim because even if the company doctor was wrong, the company initially had no reason to know that and the company took “prompt action” when it had reason to believe the situation changed.

As this case shows, when doctors disagree, employers should do more than just choose the opinion they like best. The company won this case in part because it took appropriate action to resolve the conflict between the two medical opinions, including facilitating communication between the two doctors and having its own doctor conduct a second examination when the employee’s doctor changed his opinion.

Employers should first and foremost rely on medical professionals when addressing return to work issues. However, if presented with conflicting medical opinions, employers may be able to resolve the conflict by getting the doctors to communicate with one another and reevaluate when new information is available.