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Don’t Be Afraid to Run Your Business in Considering ADA Accommodation Requests

Employers are often hesitant to deny a disabled employee accommodation, fearing that any denial may trigger liability. But a recent Eleventh Circuit case reminds us that, while employers must seriously consider accommodation requests and engage in a meaningful interactive process with the requester, companies don’t have to let such a request interrupt the ordinary conduct of their business.

Employers are not required to provide an accommodation that would create an undue hardship on the employer or would otherwise be unreasonable.

In EEOC v. St. Joseph’s Hospital, Inc.,1 for example, a disabled nurse, unable to perform her essential job functions, requested that she be reassigned to a new position, as an accommodation. The hospital considered the nurse for open positions but required her to compete with other applicants for those positions. Because she was not the most qualified among the applicants for any of the open positions, and because she couldn’t perform the essential functions of her current job, the hospital terminated her.

The Eleventh Circuit held that, though reassignments might qualify as reasonable accommodations, an employer did not have to deviate from its policy of selecting the best-qualified applicant for each open position. The Eleventh Circuit joined the Fifth2 and Eighth3 Circuits in concluding that the ADA does not require affirmative action. Instead, it requires only that an employer allow a disabled person “to compete equally with the rest of the world” for an open position. 

While the Eleventh Circuit’s decision makes it clear that an employer may not be held hostage by a less qualified employee who demands a new job as an accommodation, employers must still engage in an interactive process with the employee. If an employee is indeed less qualified than other applicants — even when offered reasonable accommodations to do the new job — then an employer may be justified in terminating the employee who can no longer perform the essential functions of his old job. Of course, the employer should be prepared to justify its decisions with objective evidence.

1 EEOC v. St. Joseph’s Hospital, Inc., 842 F.3d 1333 (11th Cir. 2016).
Daugherty v. City of El Paso, 56 F.3d 695, 700 (5th Cir. 1995).

Huber v. Wal–Mart Stores, 486 F.3d 480, 483 (8th Cir. 2007).

This information is provided by Vinson & Elkins LLP for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended, nor should it be construed, as legal advice.