Does the ADA Require Automatic Reassignment to Another Position?
A 20-year employee suffered from a “gait dysfunction” from spinal stenosis and a hip replacement. She provided a doctor’s note requiring that she use a cane. However, the employer determined that her use of a cane posed a safety hazard in her specific department. The employee sought a reasonable accommodation in the form of a job reassignment to another department where she could use her cane. Although she was given the opportunity to apply for other jobs for the employer, she was required to compete for them. When the employee did not obtain another position within 30 days, the employer terminated her employment and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) sued the employer on behalf of the employee.
One of the main issues was that the District Court for the Middle District of Florida ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) did not require job reassignment without competition as a reasonable accommodation.
The District Court also ruled that the employer’s 30-day allowance to apply for alternate jobs was reasonable as a matter of law. The District Court’s rulings were appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals (controlling in Florida), which provided clarification. United States EEOC v. St. Joseph's Hosp., Inc., 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 21768, (11th Cir. Dec. 7, 2016)
The employer argued that the employee was not protected by the ADA because she was not a qualified individual due to the fact that her cane was a safety concern for her current position. However, the District Court rejected this argument, and the 11th Circuit agreed. The EEOC took the position that the employee’s ability to perform her then-current job was irrelevant, because she sought reassignment. The Appellate Court agreed with the EEOC on this issue, noting that when an employee seeks reassignment as a reasonable accommodation for a disability, the relevant question when deciding whether she is a qualified individual is not whether the employee is qualified for her current position, but whether she is qualified for the new job.
Because the employee was found to be a qualified individual under the ADA, the next issue to be addressed was whether the employer provided an accommodation. The EEOC argued that the ADA mandates noncompetitive reassignment – basically that the employer must automatically place the employee in another position. Both the District Court and the Appellate Court rejected the EEOC’s argument, and found the ADA does not require reassignment without competition for, or preferential treatment of, the disabled.
The Appellate Court explained,
The Appellate Court went on to clarify that, “Requiring reassignment in violation of an employer's best-qualified hiring or transfer policy is not reasonable ‘in the run of cases.’ As things generally run, 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.” Therefore, the Appellate Court upheld the District Court's ruling that the ADA does not automatically mandate reassignment without competition.
Employers should be aware that the Appellate Court noted in a footnote that “just because reassignment to a vacant position in violation of an employer's best-qualified hiring policy is not always required as a reasonable accommodation [this] does not mean it never will be….[A] plaintiff can show that special circumstances warrant a finding that reassignment is a required accommodation under the particular facts of her case.” But the employee in this case failed to show special circumstances.
Although this case can be viewed as a win for Florida employers in defending claims of disability discrimination, this case also reminds employers of the case-by-case factual nature of claims of disability discrimination.
This case illustrates the importance of training managers to be able to spot requests for accommodation early on so that they can loop in human resources to assist in the interactive process.
If you would like to discuss a situation involving an employee/applicant with a disability, contact us by email or call us at 1-772-465-5111.
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