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Eleventh Circuit Holds the ADA Does Not Mandate Reassignment Without Competition or Preferential Treatment

In EEOC v. St. Joseph’s Hospital, the Eleventh Circuit recently held that the reasonable accommodation standard under the ADA “only requires an employer allow a disabled person to compete equally with the rest of the world for a vacant position” as a reasonable accommodation, and employers are not required to reassign a disabled employee into a vacant position ahead of more qualified, non-disabled employees.

St. Joseph’s Hospital (the “Hospital”) advised Leokadia Bryk (“Bryk”), a disabled nurse, that she could no longer use a cane in the psychiatric ward where she worked because it posed a safety risk.  The Hospital offered Bryk a 30-day application period during which she could apply for other positions internally.  Although the Hospital told Bryk “it wasn’t their job to get a job for [her],” the Hospital made the Manager of Team Resources available to answer questions and guide Bryk through the process.

During the 30-day application period, Bryk applied for seven out of 700 available positions but failed to obtain a new position.  The Hospital then terminated her employment.  The EEOC brought suit and argued that the mere opportunity to compete for a vacant position does not meet the reasonable accommodation obligation under the ADA and, thus, Bryk should have been granted a reassignment without having to compete with other applicants.

The Eleventh Circuit rejected the EEOC’s argument, holding “that the ADA does not require reassignment without competition for, or preferential treatment of, the disabled.”  In support, the Court cited the ADA’s definition of “reasonable accommodation,” which states the term may include reassignment. 42 U.S.C. § 12112(9)(B).  Thus, reassignment to a vacant position can be a reasonable accommodation in some circumstances, but not in others.

The Eleventh Circuit also found that employers need not abandon existing disability-neutral policies, such as the “best-qualified applicant policy” followed by the Hospital in Bryk’s case, to give preferential treatment to disabled employees.  The Court noted, however, that “a plaintiff can show that special circumstances warrant a finding that reassignment [in violation of an employer’s best-qualified hiring policy] is a required accommodation under the particular facts of her case.”  But Bryk did not do so here.

The Eleventh Circuit’s opinion reinforces the Fifth and Eighth Circuits’ similar views that the ADA is not an affirmative action statute in favor of disabled workers, and employers need not abandon neutral policies to give disabled persons priority when evaluating candidates for an open position.

© 2020 Proskauer Rose LLP. National Law Review, Volume VI, Number 354

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About this Author

Nicole A. Eichberger, Labor and Employment Attorney, Proskauer Law Firm
Senior Counsel

Nicole A. Eichberger is a Senior Counsel in the Labor and Employment Department, and a member of the Class/Collective Action Group and the Employee Benefits, Executive Compensation & ERISA Litigation Practice Center, resident in the New Orleans office. Nici assists clients in the defense of numerous complex employment and ERISA class and collective actions, including those alleging FLSA, ERISA and Executive Compensation Claims. Nici is also a member of the Firm’s eDiscovery Group and advises clients on eDiscovery matters, including day-to-day preservation, investigations, and...

504-310-2024
Minia Bremenstul, Proskauer Law Firm, Employment Litigation Attorney
Associate

Minia E. Bremenstul is an associate in the Labor & Employment Law Department. Prior to joining Proskauer, she served as a law clerk to the Honorable Susie Morgan in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

Minia graduated summa cum laude from the LSU Paul M. Hebert Law Center in 2014, where she was a member of the Order of the Coif. Minia also served as executive senior editor of the Louisiana Law Review and received the 2012-2013 Vinson & Elkins Award for best student comment or casenote.

504-310-2051