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Court Finds No Duty to Automatically Reassign Disabled Employee

By:  R. Eddie Wayland, TCA Legal Counsel

Recently, a federal district court in South Carolina addressed whether an employer sufficiently offered a disabled employee a reasonable accommodation after the employee was no longer able to fulfill the essential functions of her current position. Arguing that the employer had not met its burden, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) stated that the employer had a duty to automatically reassign the disabled employee to a vacant position regardless of whether the employee actually applied for the position. Finding the EEOC’s argument to be without merit, the Court dismissed the EEOC’s claim.

Facts of the Case

In 2014, the EEOC brought suit on behalf of the disabled employee alleging that the employee was wrongfully terminated due to her disability and that she was improperly forced to undergo certain medical examinations in violation of the Americans with Disability Act (ADA). The terminated employee suffered from several cognitive birth defects. Due to these birth defects the employee had difficulty standing and walking for long periods of time and often fell unexpectedly. After being injured from one of these falls, a functional capacity examination was performed on the employee.

The results of this examination revealed that the employee was a “high fall risk” and a “high injury risk.” Based on these findings, the employee was not cleared to work unless certain restrictions were complied with, including that the employee’s tasks which required travel be limited to a 10-mile radius. The employee was advised by her employer on multiple occasions that she could seek a second opinion but no such request was ever made by the employee.

After receiving the restriction requirements set forth in the examination, the employer determined that the employee could not perform all essential functions of her job as traveling across the various campuses, which were within a 100-mile radius, was one of the primary purposes of the employee’s job. The employee was then provided with a recruiter tasked with assisting her in a search for a new position with the employer. However, the employee refused to apply for any position which did not meet her current pay grade. Since no such position was available, the employee did not apply for any opening. For this reason, once the employee’s medical leave expired, she was terminated by the employer. Subsequently, the EEOC brought suit on the employee’s behalf.

Summary Judgment

After the close of discovery, the employer moved to have the matter dismissed prior to any trial. In 2016, the Court entered an order granting the employer’s motion on the employee’s improper medical examination claim, but remanded the wrongful termination claim for further consideration by the Magistrate Judge. The Magistrate judge subsequently submitted a Report and Recommendation to the Court recommending that the employer’s motion be granted. The EEOC objected to the Magistrate’s Report, arguing that the ADA’s reasonable accommodation provision required the employer to affirmatively reassign the disabled employee to a vacant position if the employee is qualified and has expressed a desire for the position. These objections to the Magistrate’s Report were taken into consideration by the Court prior to the final ruling.

Was the Employee a “Qualified Individual” under the ADA?

The threshold question that every court must answer when analyzing whether an employee was wrongfully terminated due to a disability is whether the employee was a “qualified individual with a disability” as defined by the ADA. To be a qualified individual with a disability, an employee must be “an individual who, with or without reasonable accommodation can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires.” Here, it was undisputed that the terminated employee was disabled. However, the employer disputed that the employee was able to perform the essential functions of her position even with a reasonable accommodation.

According to the Court, the employee’s ability to safely travel across various campuses was an essential function of the employee’s job. Being limited to traveling no further than a 10-mile radius prevented the employee from performing this essential function. The Court noted that the ADA does not require the employer to alter job duties that would change the essential functions of the position. Instead, they are merely required to provide the employee with a reasonable accommodation which would allow the disabled employee to complete the essential functions of her current job. Alternatively, the employer can provide a reasonable accommodation by reassigning the employee to an alternate position that could accommodate the employee’s disability-related restrictions. Such an accommodation was offered by the employer, but the employee refused to accept any position with less compensation than she currently received. No such position existed and therefore the employer could not provide this accommodation.

Since there was no accommodation that would allow the employee to traverse no more than a 10-mile radius and the employee refused to accept an alternate position at lower pay, the employer was not required to continue to employ the employee. The EEOC argued that the employer should have automatically reassigned the employee to a vacant position but the Court found this argument to be unpersuasive. It was the employee’s job to apply for a new position and no such application was made. As such, the Court found that that the employee was not a qualified individual within the meaning of the ADA and granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment.

Takeaway

It is critical for employers to engage their employees in the interactive process where required. Here, the employer actively worked with the employee to find a reasonable accommodation. Even though the employee did not accept the reasonable accommodation suggested by the employer, since the employer complied with the requirements of the ADA it was successfully able to avoid any liability relating to the subsequent termination of the disabled employee.

R. Eddie Wayland is a partner with the law firm of King & Ballow. You may reach Mr. Wayland at (615) 726-5430 or at rew@kingballow.com. The foregoing materials, discussion and comments have been abridged from laws, court decisions, and administrative rulings and should not be construed as legal advice on specific situations or subjects.

December 12, 2017

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