In December 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an important case regarding the scope of required accommodations an employer must make under the Americans with Disabilities Act when a disabled employee is unable to continue in his or her job, but is able to perform a different job with the same employer. On Jan. 15, 2008, the Court dismissed the case, leaving the appropriate legal standard unsettled.
In December 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court accepted a case that presented the issue of whether an employer must reassign disabled individuals who cannot perform their current jobs to vacant, equivalent positions, without having to compete with other employees for such jobs. The case, which arose out of the Eighth Circuit, involved Pat Huber, a Wal-Mart employee in Clarksville, Ark. After she became disabled by an injury, Ms. Huber sought a vacant position, but the position was awarded to a non-disabled worker. Wal-Mart stated that the other employee was better qualified and that it followed a uniform policy of filling positions on qualifications. Ms. Huber argued that Wal-Mart was required to give her preference for the position, relying in part on Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regulations that provide that a disabled employee need not be the best qualified person for an open position to obtain it as a required accommodation for that employee’s disability. The District Court held that Wal-Mart violated the ADA because it did not place Ms. Huber into a vacant position for which she was qualified. The Eighth Circuit reversed and held that the ADA does not require an employer to turn away a better-qualified applicant in order to accommodate a disabled employee.
The Circuits are split on this issue, with the Seventh and Eighth Circuits holding that an employer need not grant preference to the disabled employee when filling a vacant position, and the Tenth and District of Columbia Circuits holding that the employer must place the disabled employee into the vacant position as long as he or she is qualified. The Second, Third, Sixth and Ninth Circuits are less clear, but have described the reassignment duty in mandatory terms.
The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal of the Huber case in order to resolve the split between the circuits. On Jan. 15, 2008, however, the Court dismissed the appeal, citing the rule typically employed to dismiss cases that have settled.
Until the issue is resolved by the Supreme Court, employers should be mindful of the law in the applicable Circuit