Tuesday, January 10, 2017

A Reasonable Accommodation Does Not Always Mean Reassigning an Employee to a Vacant Position

If an employee suffers from a disability that prevents him from doing his job, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires an employer to provide that employee with a “reasonable accommodation.” This means that the employer must take measures to allow the employee to continue working despite his disability. For example, an employer must allow an employee with a broken leg to sit down at work, as long as this does not interfere with the employee’s ability to perform his job duties.

However, what if an employee’s disability makes him unable to perform his current job, but does allow him to perform another job for the employer that is currently vacant? Does the employer have to reassign the employee to the vacant position? Or can the employer require the disabled employee to apply for the position, and only hire him if he is the best candidate for the job? A federal appellate court just provided an answer.

A nurse in a psychiatric ward developed a debilitating back condition that required her to start walking with a cane. Her use of the cane raised concerns about patient safety, as it was feared that a psychiatric patient could take it from her and use it as a weapon. As a result, the nurse was told that she could no longer use the cane in the psychiatric ward. Without her cane, the nurse could no longer walk, and could no longer perform her job duties.

The hospital where she worked gave her 30 days to apply for another position within it. Although she applied for three positions, she was not hired for any of them. After the 30-day period elapsed, she still did not have a position, so the hospital discharged her.

The nurse filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), claiming that the hospital violated the ADA by not allowing her to fill one of the vacant positions within it, which she argued would have been a reasonable accommodation. The EEOC agreed, and filed suit on her behalf.

The trial court found that the hospital did not violate the ADA, and the appellate court agreed. It held that a reasonable accommodation does not require an employee to be reassigned to a vacant position within an organization. The court held that disabled employees can be required to compete for these positions with other applicants. A contrary holding, the court ruled, would stifle “efficiency and good-performance.”

The court noted “that the ADA only requires an employer allow a disabled person to compete equally with the rest of the world for a vacant position.” It does not require employers to give disabled employees special treatment. The court noted that the ADA only states that a reasonable accommodation may include reassignment to a different position.

Readers should note that this decision only applies to the states within the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which include Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. It is possible that other circuits will develop a different rule. Employers should also remember that the ADA requires them to consider all requests for a reasonable accommodation and to provide a detailed explanation for any decision to deny such a request. The employer needs to make a good faith attempt to make a reasonable accommodation. Contact us if you have questions about this case or the ADA in general.