ADA’s Reasonable Accommodation Requirement Doesn’t Demand Non-Competitive Job Reassignment, 11th Circuit Says

Most employers know that the law obliges them to accommodate their employees with disabilities, as long as the accommodation sought is reasonable. The question with which employers and employees often wrestle is “What is the limit of reasonable?” For example, if an employer has an employee with a disability who needs an accommodation that involves job reassignment, how far must the employer go to make that happen? Must the employer place the employee into an acceptable open position ahead of other, more qualified applicants? A recent 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decision said no.

The employee in the case was a nurse at a psychiatric hospital in Tampa. The nurse was obese and had arthritis. Her condition eventually worsened to the point that she required a cane to walk anything more than short distances. The nurse had a doctor’s note recommending the use of the cane. The employer, however, was worried that one of the facility’s psychiatric patients might take the nurse’s cane from her and use it as a weapon. Based upon this concern for both employees and patients, the employer prohibited the nurse from using the cane.

The nurse requested that the employer reassign her to a new job as a reasonable accommodation. The employer agreed that it would be willing to do so, but only after the nurse competed for any desired position and was selected as the most qualified candidate. The nurse applied for several jobs but was never selected. Eventually, the hospital terminated her employment.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued the hospital on the nurse’s behalf, alleging that the hospital’s failure to place her in a new job constituted disability discrimination by virtue of failing to provide her with a reasonable accommodation for her disability. Specifically, the EEOC advanced the contention that the Americans with Disabilities Act required the hospital to allow the nurse to pursue new positions without having to compete for them. In other words, the agency argued that the law required the employer to give the employee a reassignment as long as she met the position’s qualifications, even if the employer had other applicants for that same position who were more qualified.

Both the trial court and the 11th Circuit refused to adopt the EEOC’s argument. The trial court explained its ruling by stating that the employer did not have a statutorily mandated obligation to reassign the nurse to a new job just because she met the position’s minimum qualifications. Forcing the nurse to compete for jobs was “one factor, out of many, that the jury may consider regarding the reasonableness of the accommodation.”

The appeals court agreed that the ADA’s reasonable accommodation requirement did not force employers to allow employees to pursue reassignment on a non-competitive basis. The law does not, the court explained, oblige an employer to offer reassignment at all. Reassignment, whether competitive or non-competitive, is one avenue an employer may pursue in order to accommodate an employee’s disability. The 11th Circuit has consistently ruled that “employers are only required to provide ‘alternative employment opportunities reasonably available under the employer’s existing policies’.”

In the past, that’s meant that an employee’s recognized disability did not trump other employees’ seniority in a seniority-based system. The hospital did not have a seniority system but merely a “most qualified applicant” policy. This hospital was allowed to bypass this nurse in favor of other, more qualified individuals and still not run afoul of the ADA because a non-competitive reassignment was not reasonable in this situation. “Passing over the best-qualified job applicants in favor of less-qualified ones is not a reasonable way to promote efficiency or good performance. In the case of hospitals, which is this case, the well-being and even the lives of patients can depend on having the best-qualified personnel,” the court said in a key passage.

In any disability discrimination case involving an employment accommodation, the key question will often be “Is the desired accommodation reasonable?” To help you sort through these and other questions, and to provide you with skilled representation in your disability discrimination case, contact the experienced Georgia disability discrimination attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert. Our attorneys have been handling employment cases for both employers and employees for many years and are here to help you with yours too.

To speak with one of our lawyers about your case, call 404-873-8048.

More blog posts:

Eleventh Circuit Upholds Decision for Employer That Denied Additional Leave to Employee With Disability, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Jan. 19, 2017

11th Circuit Says Employer Not Required to Adopt Reporter’s Suggested Disability Accommodations, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, March 24, 2016

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