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EEOC, courts at odds over mandatory job reassignment

A disabled employee can no longer perform their job, even with accommodations. Is that employee entitled to other positions in the company, ahead of more qualified candidates?

The EEOC says yes, but some federal courts disagree — including the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.

Background

In the case of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Methodist Hospitals of Dallas, Adrianna Cook, a patient care technician, injured her back while turning a patient and was subsequently diagnosed with a “bulging disc” and an “annular tear.”

Cook was taken off work for a few days and assigned light duty in the hospital pharmacy. Roughly a month later, Cook returned to her previous position but quickly determined she could no longer work in that role.

Cook was placed on leave and proceeded to apply for other open positions in the hospital, including a scheduling coordinator role for which she met the minimum qualifications. Methodist had a policy in place to hire “the most qualified applicant available” for every vacancy, and Cook was not hired for the position.

Case notes indicate that Cook had previously met all performance standards and had no disciplinary actions on file. Fact finding also seemed to point out a relative lack of organizational support to help Cook find alternative roles within the hospital. Rather, Cook was encouraged to “just resign.”

After her FMLA period expired, the hospital offered her six months unpaid leave and required her to submit a doctor’s statement indicating she was unable to return to work. Cook did not respond to this request as, the court noted, she felt an “unable to work” statement was untrue. Previous doctor statements had indicated she was unable to return to “patient care.” Cook was subsequently terminated from employment.

The EEOC filed suit on Cook’s behalf, claiming that the hospital’s most-qualified-applicant policy “violates the ADA because Methodist cannot categorically refuse to reassign disabled employees to a vacant position for which they are qualified.”

But the 5th Circuit disagreed.

The court said that the “EEOC’s proposed course of action turns the shield of the ADA into a sword, casting the equally reasonable expectation of other workers to the side.”

The court also asserted that mandatory reassignment is unreasonable when patients’ lives are on the line.

Takeaways for employers

The 5th Circuit’s decision aligns with similar decisions from the 4th, 8th, and 11th Circuits. However, the 7th and 10th Circuits have sided with the EEOC.

New England-based employers faced with such an issue should be aware of the EEOC’s position on job reassignment for disabled employees. Failure to reassign an employee to a job for which they are qualified could expose the company to a lawsuit and potential escalation to the federal courts. As federal courts are currently split on the issue, an ultimate determination is unclear.

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