Court Holds ADA Does Not Require Reassignment Without Competition
A federal appellate court rejected the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s position that the Americans with Disabilities Act mandates noncompetitive reassignment as a reasonable accommodation.
Facts of the Case: In EEOC v. St. Joseph’s Hospital, Inc., a psychiatric ward nurse began using a cane because of her spinal condition. She was informed she could not use the cane in the psychiatric ward because it could be used as a weapon and therefore posed a safety risk. She was given 30 days to apply for other positions within the hospital. She applied for seven positions, but was not offered any of them. She was then terminated.
The nurse filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC, and the EEOC subsequently filed suit against the hospital on her behalf, claiming, among other things, that the hospital had violated the ADA by failing to reassign the nurse to a vacant position without requiring her to compete for it. Notably, the EEOC’s view on noncompetitive reassignment is one that it has repeatedly articulated, including in its Enforcement Guidance: Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship Under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Prior to trial, however, the federal district court ruled that the hospital was not obligated to reassign the nurse to a vacant position without competition. Rather, the district court stated that “[r]equiring competition is one factor, out of many, that the jury may consider regarding the reasonableness of the accommodation.”
At trial, the jury found in favor of the hospital. Post-trial, however, the district court granted the EEOC’s motion to alter judgment and entered judgment in the EEOC’s favor. Nonetheless, the district court denied the EEOC’s request for an injunction to bar the hospital’s policy of competitive job reassignment for disabled workers.
The Court’s Ruling: On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit reversed the district court’s judgment for the EEOC, and directed the district court to enter judgment for the hospital. The 11th Circuit agreed with the district court that the ADA does not mandate noncompetitive reassignment for disabled workers. In so holding, the 11th Circuit looked to the language of the ADA, which states that reasonable accommodations “may include” reassignment, and that such language is not mandatory, unlike in other parts of the statute.
The 11th Circuit also looked to Supreme Court precedent, set forth in U.S. Airways, Inc. v. Barnett. Under Barnett, whether a job reassignment request trumps an employer’s disability-neutral rule depends on whether the waiver of the rule poses an undue hardship for the employer. In this case, the rule in question was the employer’s policy of hiring the best-qualified applicant. The 11th Circuit determined that waiving this policy was not reasonable, explaining that, “employers operate their businesses for profit, which requires efficiency and good performance. Passing over the best-qualified job applicants in favor of less-qualified ones is not a reasonable way to promote efficiency or good performance.”
The 11th Circuit concluded that the ADA only requires employers to allow a disabled person to compete equally with others for a vacant position. The 11th Circuit did acknowledge, however, that there may be “special circumstances,” which did not exist here, that may render a noncompetitive reassignment a reasonable accommodation. The 11th Circuit did not specify what such special circumstances might be.
Lessons Learned: Employers will find the 11th Circuit’s analysis logical and sensible. However, they should be aware that the EEOC has held the opposing view of noncompetitive reassignment for many years, and will undoubtedly continue to adhere to this view in the future. In addition, there are several other federal circuits that seem to have adopted the EEOC’s view. And, as we noted in our August 2015 E-Update, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals (our second-highest state appellate court) has suggested that, under the Maryland anti-discrimination law, the disabled employee is entitled to a vacant position for which he is qualified, even if more qualified applicants exist. The Court of Special Appeals decision was affirmed by the Maryland Court of Appeals (our highest appellate court), although the Court of Appeals did not specifically address that point.