Nuance is important in legal analysis. A recent 6th Circuit case dealing with employer policies requiring an employee returning from sick leave to provide a doctor’s note illustrates the point.  

In Lee v. The City of Columbus, the 6th Circuit held that the Columbus Police Department’s requirement that the doctor’s note include the “the nature of the illness” was not an unlawful, disability-related inquiry under the Rehab Act.

In 2003, the Second Circuit held  in Conroy v New York State Dep’t of Correctional Services, that the employer’s requirement that employees submit a doctor’s note with a “general diagnosis” was an unlawful disability-related inquiry under the ADA because it “may tend to reveal” a disability.

Is there a difference between the “nature of an illness” and a “general diagnosis”? The 6th Circuit said that the former is “less specific” than the latter. Merriam Webster would likely agree. It defines “nature” as “a kind or class usually distinguished by fundamental or essential characteristics.”  It defines “diagnosis” as a statement or conclusion from “an analysis of the cause or nature of a condition…” Thus, it seems that from the broader “nature” comes the more specific “diagnosis.” But that hardly explains why the “general diagnosis” statement is an unlawful disability-related inquiry because it is likely to reveal a disability, while a statement of the “nature of the illness” is not. 

Many employers have attendance policies requiring an employee to produce a doctor’s note in defined circumstances. In light of the Lee and Conroy cases, employers with such policies should review the wording of the requirement carefully because, as we know, nuance is important.