Discrimination case fails at second attempt
A court case earlier this month highlights the obligations of employers under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to reasonably accommodate disabled employees. In the case of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Methodist Hospitals of Dallas, a patient care technician at a regional hospital applied for a scheduling coordinator position after suffering a work-related injury.
The hospital allowed injured employees to request short-term disability benefits and leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 but required disabled employees seeking permanent reassignment to compete for open positions. In this case, the hospital selected a more qualified candidate for the scheduling coordinator role, leading to an ADA lawsuit by the employee.
The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the hospital on both claims, but the case highlights the requirements under the ADA for employers to avoid discrimination against qualified individuals based on their disability.
To prove an ADA discrimination claim based on a failure to reasonably accommodate, the employee must establish that they have a disability covered under the ADA, are qualified to perform the essential functions of the job with or without accommodation, that the employer knew about the disability and its limitations, and the employer failed to provide reasonable accommodations. This case serves as a reminder to employers to take reasonable steps to accommodate disabled employees and avoid discrimination.
The court applied a two-step test to determine whether the hospital's policy violated the ADA. The first step required the employee to show that the requested accommodation was unreasonable "on its face," which the court found was not the case given the hospital's "most qualified applicant" policy. However, the court remanded the question of whether the employee could demonstrate "special circumstances" warranting reassignment.
Different circuits have reached different conclusions on whether "most qualified applicant" policies violate the ADA, so employers should carefully tailor their disability-neutral policies to comply with the law. Employers must also consider each disabled employee's request for accommodation on a case-by-case basis, potentially deviating from existing policies if necessary to comply with the ADA.
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), reassigning a disabled employee to a vacant position may qualify as a reasonable accommodation. Once an employee requests a reasonable accommodation, the employer is required to engage in an "interactive process" to determine what reasonable accommodations are available under the circumstances.
The Fifth Circuit affirmed that the hospital did not violate the ADA by declining to reassign the employee to the scheduling coordinator position. The Court cited the employee's failure to respond to an offer to extend her leave period as a "breakdown in the interactive process."
To determine whether the hospital's policy violated the ADA, the Court applied the two-step test established in U.S. Airways, Inc. v. Barnett. The first prong of the test requires the employee to show that the requested accommodation is reasonable "on its face." The Court likened the hospital's "most qualified applicant" policy to a seniority policy and held that the employee's request was not reasonable on its face. However, the Court remanded the question of whether the employee could demonstrate special circumstances warranting reassignment.
Different circuits have reached differing conclusions on whether "most qualified applicant" policies violate the ADA. Employers should tailor their disability-neutral policies to serve specific business interests and carefully consider each disabled employee's request for reassignment on a case-by-case basis. Employers may need to deviate from their policies to comply with the ADA if "special circumstances" exist.