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A Dallas hospital system’s application of its “most-qualified applicant” policy may have violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, a federal appeals court ruled Friday in partially overturning a lower court ruling.
In March 2012, Adrianna Cook, who worked as a patient care technician for Methodist Hospitals of Dallas, a regional hospital network, injured her back on the job while turning a patient and went on Family and Medical Leave Act leave, according to Friday’s ruling by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Methodist Hospitals of Dallas.
In July 2104, Ms. Cook applied for a vacant scheduling coordination position in the surgery department on Methodist’s job bank, attesting she would not need an accommodation.
A Methodist employee acknowledged Ms. Cook met the minimum qualifications for the position, but the hiring manager selected another candidate. Ms. Cook was later terminated.
The EEOC sued the hospital in U.S. District Court in Dallas alleging that Methodist’s most-qualified applicant policy violates the ADA because Methodist “cannot categorically refuse to reassign disabled employees to a vacant position for which they are qualified.”
The EEOC also alleged Methodist had unlawfully refused to reassign Ms. Cook to the scheduling coordinator position after she could no longer perform the patient care position’s essential functions.
The district court ruled in Methodist’s favor. A three-judge appeals court panel agreed with the dismissal of the claim that Methodist had unlawfully refused to reassign Ms. Cook but overturned the lower court with regard to Methodist’s most qualified applicant policy.
The ruling cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2002 ruling in US Airways Inc. vs. Robert Barnett, which held that “the seniority system will prevail in the run of cases.”
The Supreme Court held that reassignment of a disabled employee is not a reasonable accommodation where there is an established seniority system unless there are special circumstances.
The EEOC “remains free to show” there are such special circumstances in this case, the appeals court ruling said.
In remanding the case, the panel said the district court should focus on whether there is “a genuine dispute of material fact” calling for an exception to Methodist’s most qualified applicant policy.
Attorneys in the case had no comment or did not respond to a request for comment.