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March 17, 2023
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In Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Methodist Hospitals of Dallas, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals stated that a disabled employee was not entitled to mandatory job reassignment as a reasonable accommodation because the employee was not the “most qualified applicant available” for the vacant position. Here, a patient care technician applied for a scheduling coordinator position after suffering a work-related injury. The hospital required any disabled employee requesting a permanent job reassignment to compete for open positions pursuant to its policy of hiring “the most qualified applicant available.” Based on this policy, the hospital selected a more qualified candidate for the scheduling coordinator position instead of the injured employee.
The EEOC, on behalf of the employee, alleged disability discrimination and claimed that the hospital failed to reasonably accommodate the disabled employee by not reassigning her to the vacant position. In its ruling, the court looked to U.S. Supreme Court precedent in U.S. Airways, Inc. v. Barnett, which held that an employer with a seniority system for job assignments was not required to automatically reassign a disabled employee as a reasonable accommodation if another candidate with greater seniority applied for the same position. A “reasonable accommodation” request under the ADA must be reasonable “on its face” (i.e., as it appears). Even if an employee is unable to show that the requested accommodation is reasonable on its face, the employee may show that “special circumstances” exist to establish the requested accommodation as reasonable under the specific facts at issue. The burden then shifts to the employer to “show special circumstances that demonstrate undue hardship.”
The Fifth Circuit likened the hospital’s “most qualified applicant” policy to the seniority policy in Barnett, saying that the disabled employee’s request for permanent reassignment to the scheduling coordinator position was not reasonable on its face. The court reasoned that the hospital’s policy “stabilizes employee expectations” and that requiring a hospital to ignore the qualifications of other applicants in favor of offering disabled employees with competition-free reassignments “would compromise the hospital’s interest in providing excellent and affordable care to its patients and would be unfair to the [hospital’s] other employees.” Ultimately, however, the Court did not apply the burden-shifting prong of the Barnett test and remanded the question of whether special circumstances exist to nevertheless warrant the reassignment.
There continues to exist a split among the Circuit Courts on whether the “most qualified applicant” policies violate the ADA. However, at this time, it is unclear whether or when the Supreme Court will seek to resolve the ongoing dispute of authorities.
- Review similar disability-neutral criteria for job assignments and applications.
- Have job descriptions updated to reflect current job duties and requirements.
- Have appropriate personnel trained on receiving and evaluating employee requests for accommodation.
- Consult with legal counsel when evaluating an accommodation request for permanent job reassignment.
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Disclaimer: This document is designed to provide general information and guidance concerning employment-related issues. It is presented with the understanding that ManagEase is not engaged in rendering any legal opinions. If a legal opinion is needed, please contact the services of your own legal adviser. © 2023 ManagEase