The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit recently held that businesses do not have to reassign their disabled workers into open positions ahead of more qualified, nondisabled employees, therefore rejecting the EEOC’s position that competition is not permissible under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA").
The lawsuit, titled United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. St. Joseph’s Hospital, No. 15-14551 (11th Cir. Dec. 7, 2016), found that the express language of the ADA does not require an employer to prioritize the reassignment of a disabled employee over the hiring of the best-qualified applicant. The case concerned a nurse who worked in a psychiatric ward of a hospital. After suffering an injury, the nurse began using a cane to walk. The cane, however, posed a danger in the psychiatric ward as it could be used as a weapon by a patient. The hospital allowed the nurse 30 days to identify and apply for a new position at the hospital. If she was still interviewing for jobs after 30 days, the hospital agreed to forgo terminating her for another 30 days. At the conclusion of the initial 30 days, the nurse had neither obtained a new position at the hospital, nor had she made it to the interview round for any of the jobs for which she had applied. As per the hospital’s policy, the hospital terminated her.
After her termination, the EEOC brought suit on the nurse’s behalf arguing that her termination violated the ADA. The EEOC alleged that the hospital failed to provide the nurse with a reasonable accommodation by not allowing her to use her cane in the psychiatric ward and that the hospital violated the ADA when it failed to reassign her to a new position without requiring her to compete with other applicants for the position. At the trial level, the jury entered judgment in favor of the hospital finding the hospital made a good faith effort to provide the nurse with a reasonable accommodation despite the fact that it did not ultimately assign the nurse to a new position.
Upon appeal, the Eleventh Circuit upheld the trial court’s decision relying upon both the express language of the ADA and Supreme Court precedent. The court found that the use of the word “may” in the statute suggested that reassignment will be reasonable in some circumstances but not in others. Furthermore, similar to the Supreme Court’s holding regarding established seniority systems for awarding reassignments in U.S. Airways, Inc. v. Barnett, 535 U.S. 391, (2002), the Eleventh Circuit found that a blanket rule forcing employers to violate an established best-qualified applicant policy in favor of a disabled employee may not be reasonable.
The EEOC argued that its interpretation had been accepted by the Seventh, Tenth and D.C. Circuits. The Eleventh Circuit disagreed and distinguished those cases without specifically disagreeing with them.
This case gives employers in the Eleventh Circuit more latitude than the EEOC proposed in handling the issue of transfers in reasonable accommodation, but given the unsettled nature of the issue across federal circuits, and the EEOC’s continued focus on ADA accommodation issues, employers should continue to tread carefully in this area.