For years, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has taken the administrative position that if a disabled employee can no longer perform his or her job, the employer must place that employee in a vacant position for which they are qualified, even if there are better qualified internal applicants for that job. Earlier this month, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals rejected this position, stating that this requirement is not a form of required reasonable accommodation.
In EEOC v. St. Joseph’s Hosp., the Commission concluded that the plaintiff should have been transferred to a different vacant position without having to compete for the job. Appealing the lower court’s dismissal of the claim, the EEOC asserted that federal circuit courts are split on this issue, and that the Supreme Court’s 2002 U.S. Airways v. Barnett decision supports its position that disabled employees should receive preferential treatment for reassignment.
The Eleventh Circuit rejected these arguments, noting that no federal appellate court had actually found such an accommodation obligation outside of dicta in a few cases. More importantly, Barnett upheld the ability of employers to rely on a bona fide seniority system to deny reassignment. Requiring such reassignment over a better qualified internal applicant for the position conflicts with this decision.
If followed by other federal appellate courts, this decision provides employers with a defense against claims by disabled employees for automatic reassignment. If a more qualified applicant for the position is chosen, employers should thoroughly document the qualifications or other factors behind their decision.