The United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently published an opinion addressing reassignment of an employee with a disability to a vacant position as a reasonable accommodation pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). EEOC v. Methodist Hospital of Dallas.

The facts show that Methodist Hospital of Dallas (“Methodist”) followed a policy of hiring/promoting the most qualified candidate for any available position and did not deviate from this practice even when an individual with a disability may have a need for the available position. The EEOC alleged the policy and practice itself was a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and in particular, Methodist discriminated against an employee named Adrianna Cook (“Cook”) by not assigning her to a vacant position as a reasonable accommodation.

Cook began employment with Methodist as a patient care technician and was later injured while performing one of her job functions. She was given a light-duty position and was capable of completing its duties. Following a restriction from her healthcare provider which took her out of work, she was placed on Family and Medical Leave until she had exhausted all available time. She was then offered unpaid leave if she could provide documentation from a healthcare provider confirming her inability to work. Cook assumed she could do the work of the light-duty position she had done before and did not obtain the medical information. Methodist gave Cook another opportunity to provide the supporting documentation, but she again failed to do so and was terminated.

The Federal District Court granted Methodist’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed the case. On appeal, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back to the District Court to reconsider its finding on the use of the best qualified candidate policy but affirmed the dismissal of the claim that Cook was discriminated against by Methodist.

In its opinion, the Fifth Circuit stated that discrimination on the basis of disability includes the failure to provide reasonable accommodations unless doing so would create an undue hardship. The court then reviewed the two-step process in determining if an accommodation is reasonable.

The first step is deciding if the accommodation is reasonable on its face. If it is not, then the individual requesting the accommodation may establish that the accommodation is still reasonable based on the particular set of facts presented.

In 2002, the United States Supreme Court ruled that when a company uses a bona fide seniority program to place employees in vacant positions, then assignment to an open job due to a disability is not reasonable on its face. In that case, the particular set of facts at issue did not result in the assignment being found to be reasonable.

Methodist was able to show that because of its use of the best qualified candidate method of selection, the reassignment of Cook to the available position was not reasonable on its face. Despite the first step of the process falling in Methodist’s favor, the Fifth Circuit concluded that the District Court did not consider the second step of the analysis as it failed to address whether a particular set of facts existed that may result in the conclusion that the reassignment was reasonable. As stated above, the case was then returned to the district court for further consideration on the second step on the determination of reasonableness. 

A major takeaway from this case is that the use of an established policy of hiring the most qualified candidate can assist an employer in denying reassignment of an individual with a disability to a vacant position when it would prefer a more qualified candidate. The individual seeking the assignment as a reasonable accommodation should be considered for the position using the same process as all other job seekers.

Another significant takeaway is for employers to be prepared to justify the best qualified policy. Methodist was able to do so because of its stated need to hire the best qualified to ensure optimum care and safety for its patients.

Finally, remember that putting the policy into place and consistently following it (no exceptions for the boss’s family members) is not the final consideration, as the company must also consider any unique or particular facts that may override the policy.