A recent federal Appellate Court decision offers employers greater flexibility and decision making authority in considering job reassignments for qualified disabled employees.  In EEOC v. St. Joseph’s Hospital, a case decided by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers Georgia, Florida and Alabama), an employee sought a job reassignment as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The employer allowed the employee thirty days to apply for vacant positions, but did not automatically grant her a new position.  Rather the employer required the employee to compete for a new position pursuant to its best qualified applicant hiring policy – she would be given the job only if she was the best qualified applicant for the position.

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) brought suit alleging that a disabled individual, such as this employee, who was seeking a job reassignment as a reasonable accommodation should not have to compete for a new position.  The EEOC contended that as long as the employee was qualified for the position, she should be given the position as a reasonable accommodation, and she should not have to compete for it or be the best candidate for the position.  The Eleventh Circuit disagreed.

In reaching this conclusion, the Eleventh Circuit first considered the language of the ADA and its regulations, holding that because the ADA states job reassignment may be a reasonable accommodation, reassignment is not mandatory.  The Eleventh Circuit next examined a U.S. Supreme Court decision that found that a job reassignment request does not trump an employer’s seniority system.  Applying the same rationale, the Eleventh Circuit held that a job reassignment request should not automatically supersede a best qualified hiring policy.  The Eleventh Circuit noted that “employers operate their businesses for profit, which requires efficiency and good performance.  Passing over the best-qualified job applicants in favor of less-qualified ones is not a reasonable way to promote efficiency or good performance.”

While this ruling may be helpful decision for many employers, businesses should be careful not to step into certain pitfalls when applying this decision to their employment practices.  First, this decision directly contradicts decisions from three other Circuits which require that qualified disabled applicants be given vacant positions the request as accommodations.  So, employers with locations outside of Georgia, Florida and Alabama need to ensure they are complying with the applicable court decisions.

Second, when a qualified disabled individual applies for job reassignment, employers should make very careful and detailed hiring decisions, following their normal practices and procedures, and ensuring that qualified applicants’ protected status – including their disabilities – are not a negative factor in the final hiring decision.  This includes utilizing a job description that includes the requisite qualifications for the position as well as ensuring that the chosen applicant – whether it is the disabled applicant or not – is truly the best candidate for the job.  Failure to properly document the decision-making process and any inability to be able to defend the legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for the hiring decision will leave open the door for disability discrimination claims even with this Eleventh Circuit decision.