Court Says Disabled Employee Does Not Get Automatic Reassignment

One of the more hotly debated workplace issues is whether a disabled employee who can no longer perform their job even with accommodations is entitled to be placed into an existing vacancy, even ahead of other more qualified candidates.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) says yes but an increasing number of federal courts would disagree.

Most recently, a federal judge in Texas refused to follow the urging of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) suggestion that a disabled employee must automatically receive reassignment to another position even ahead of more qualified applicants.  Instead, in EEOC v. Methodist Hospitals of Dallas, Judge A. Joe Fish ruled that requiring a disabled employee to compete evenly with nondisabled applicants for a job is not a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Accommodation v. Competition

The EEOC sued Methodist Hospital in September of 2015 on behalf of Adrianna Cook, a patient care technician who was diagnosed with an annular tear and degenerative disk condition in her back.  She was given medical restrictions and was placed on light duty, but when she finally was returned to her previous position, she lasted only a single day before concluding that she could not meet her job requirements.  The hospital then placed her on a leave of absence, during which Cook applied for eight open positions that fit her physical restrictions.  Each time, she lost out to another candidate and eventually was terminated from employment.

The EEOC sued the Hospital on Cook’s behalf, claiming that they had not met their duty to offer Cook reasonable accommodation.  They argued that even if Cook could no longer perform her existing job even with accommodations, the Hospital was required to place her into an existing vacancy for a job for which she was qualified.  The federal district court disagreed, supporting Methodist’s policy of hiring the most qualified candidate for a vacant position, regardless of whether or not they are disabled.

Judge Fish’s decision aligns with previous decisions from the Eighth and Eleventh Circuit Courts of Appeals.  Indeed, the Eighth Circuit (in which Minnesota sits) has been a leader in articulating that while the ADA requires the employer to assist disabled employee in locating and applying for vacancies, the rights of those disabled employees do not outweigh the rights of more qualified candidates to compete successfully for vacant jobs.  They explained their position in this regard by stating that the ADA is not an affirmative action statute for the disabled.

Judge Fish predicted that the Fifth Circuit (which includes Texas) would become the next appeals Court to embrace this limitation on the employer’s duty to accommodate disabled employees.  It is not certain whether the EEOC will appeal this decision.

Bottom Line

There continues to be disagreement amongst the various Federal Appeals Courts on this issue so case decisions will conflict depending upon which court is asked to rule.  Still, this is another decision that seems to bode well for employers in the Fifth Circuit and which evens out the playing field a bit more.

For employers in Minnesota, the law remains on your side although the EEOC continues to believe that their interpretation of the ADA is correct in this regard.  The are likely to remain aggressive on this issue.