On December 7, 2016, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision in United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. St. Joseph’s Hospital, Inc., holding in part that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not mandate reassignment without competition. The employee at issue – Leokadia Bryk – was employed as a nurse in the psychiatric ward of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa, Florida for over 20 years. After undergoing hip replacement surgery in 2009, Bryk began using a cane to walk. After becoming concerned that the patients could use the cane as a weapon, the hospital advised Bryk that she could no longer use the cane in the psychiatric ward, but offered her the opportunity to remain employed with the hospital and gave her 30 days to identify and apply for other positions. The hospital permitted Bryk to compete with other internal applicants – as opposed to being in the general pool of job applicants – although Bryk did not meet the normal criteria for a transfer.

According to the facts developed in the district court, Bryk spent the first two weeks of the 30-day period on vacation, and did not apply for another position until three weeks into her 30-day window. Instead of applying for available positions through internal channels as an active employee, Bryk submitted her applications as though she was an external applicant. According to the EEOC, Bryk applied for three positions for which she was qualified. However, the hospital did not interview Bryk for any of those positions. After the 30 days expired and Bryk was terminated, the EEOC filed a lawsuit under the ADA, alleging that the hospital failed to provide Bryk with a reasonable accommodation by not allowing her to use a cane while working in the psychiatric ward and by not reassigning her to a vacant position without requiring her to compete with other applicants for those jobs.
On cross motions for summary judgment, the district court found that the hospital was reasonable in not permitting Bryk to use a cane in the psychiatric ward, but found that there was a genuine issue of material fact on the job transfer issue. At trial, the jury found that the hospital made good faith efforts to identify and make a reasonable accommodation for Bryk and, therefore, the district court entered judgment in favor of the hospital.

On appeal, after holding that Bryk was disabled and was a qualified individual under the ADA, the Eleventh Circuit addressed the EEOC’s argument that the ADA mandates noncompetitive reassignment. Holding that the ADA does not require such noncompetitive reassignment, the Eleventh Circuit cited existing precedent that, under the ADA, employers are only required to provide “alternative employment opportunities reasonably available under the employer’s existing policies.” In support of its holding, the Eleventh Circuit cited US Airways, Inc. v. Barnett (2002), where the Supreme Court held that the ADA does not require an employer to assign a disabled employee to a particular position even though another employee is entitled to that position under the employer’s established seniority system.

The Eleventh Circuit held that while the case before it did not involve a seniority system, it did involve a best-qualified applicant policy and that undermining such a policy in the hospital setting could have a detrimental effect on both the hospital and on its patients. The court concluded that “the intent of the ADA is that an employer needs only to provide meaningful equal employment opportunities, and that the ADA was never intended to turn nondiscrimination into discrimination against the non-disabled.”
The Eleventh Circuit’s holding in EEOC v. St. Joseph’s Hospital (No. 15-14551, 2016 WL 7131479) provides important contours and limits to the ADA’s reasonable accommodation requirement, particularly in the healthcare setting. The attorneys at Chilivis Grubman represent all types of businesses – particularly in the healthcare industry – in connection with employment-related litigation. For any questions, or if we can be of any assistance with such a matter, please contact us at (404) 262-6505 or sgrubman@cglawfirm.com.