July 13, 2005 Personality Test Administered by Employer Found to Violate Federal Disability Discrimination Laws

Summary

A federal court of appeal recently ruled that an employer’s administration of a commonly-used personality test with employees seeking management positions violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because the test screens for mental disabilities and, as a result, constitutes an impermissible medical examination.

Details

In order to secure a promotion to an upper-level management position, Rent-A-Center required its employees to take a series of tests designed to measure math and language skills, as well as interests and personality traits. One of the tests administered to employees seeking promotions was the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) test, a widely used personality test. The MMPI test, however, measures more than just workplace personality traits. It also assesses where a test-taker falls on scales measuring depression, hypochondriasis, hysteria, paranoia, and mania. In addition, elevated scores on certain scales of the MMPI test can be used in the diagnoses of certain psychiatric disorders. Based on Rent-A-Car’s testing and scoring process, an employee seeking promotion could be denied any chance for advancement because of his or her score on the MMPI test alone.

After being denied consideration for promotions based on their test scores, several employees sued Rent-A-Center claiming that the use of the MMPI test constituted a medical examination prohibited by the ADA. The employees asserted that the ADA prohibits the use of certain medical examinations, including pre-employment medical tests, medical tests that lack job-relatedness and business necessity, and tests which tend to screen out persons with disabilities. They argued that the MMPI was just such a test.

The employees’ challenge to the use of the MMPI was heard by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeal in Karraker v. Rent-A-Center. In determining whether the MMPI test was a prohibited medical examination, the court stated that following general rule: Psychological tests designed to identify a mental disorder qualify as prohibited medical examinations; whereas, psychological tests that merely measure personality traits (such as honesty, preferences, and habits) do not.

Applying this general rule to the MMPI test, the court considered evidence that psychologists could use the MMPI test results to assist in the diagnosis of a mental illness or disability. Thus, because the MMPI test is designed, in part, to reveal a mental disability and its use has the effect of hurting the employment prospects of one with a mental disability, the court concluded that MMPI test constitutes a medical examination prohibited under the ADA—even though Rent-A-Center did not have the test results interpreted by a psychologist and did not specifically use the test to screen for mental disabilities.

What this Means

While the Seventh Circuit’s decisions are not binding authority in California, this case is certainly indication that using the MMPI, or any similar test, can be risky if they potentially reveal the existence of a mental disability. As a result, California employers that administer any psychological or personality tests should immediately re-evaluate and analyze these tests to ensure that they comply with the ADA and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act.

This E-Update was authored by Mike Minguet and Mike Sullivan. For more information, please contact Mr. Minguet, Mr. Sullivan or any Paul, Plevin attorney at 619-237-5200.

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