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EEOC trial error precludes liability
Reasonable accommodation issues are often convoluted matters for supervisors and human resource professionals. Compliance with accommodation obligations requires careful and thorough attention, as recently addressed by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In the case at hand, absent a trial error by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), an employer that had undertaken good-faith efforts to accommodate an employee's disability would have nonetheless been liable for a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) due to a failure to place the employee into a vacant position for which she was arguably qualified.
[SHRM members-only toolkit: Accommodating Employees' Disabilities]
Leokadia Bryk was a psychiatric ward nurse for St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa, Fla. During a meeting in October 2011, Bryk was observed using a cane, which helped her to walk for more than short distances due to a gait dysfunction ailment. The hospital was concerned that the cane could be used as a weapon and, therefore, that its presence in the psychiatric ward created a safety risk. As such, the hospital precluded her from continuing to work in her current position.
The hospital permitted Bryk a 30-day window to apply for other vacant jobs as an accommodation for her walking limitation. As a further accommodation, the hospital altered its internal candidate transfer rule that required an employee to have been in his or her current position for at least six months and to have no final written warnings. Bryk met neither criteria. Without the relaxation of the transfer rule, Bryk would not have been qualified to seek a transfer.
Bryk applied for three positions prior to the close of the 30-day window. For varying reasons, the hospital rejected each of the applications and her employment was terminated. The EEOC filed a lawsuit against St. Joseph's on Bryk's behalf, asserting an unlawful failure to accommodate her disability.
The EEOC challenged St. Joseph's decision to have Bryk compete for vacant positions. The EEOC argued that Bryk should have been reassigned to a vacant position without the need to compete against other applicants. The appeals court, affirming a ruling of the district court and relying on the U.S. Supreme Court decision in U.S. Airways Inc. v. Barnett, held that the ADA is not an affirmative action statute. Under the facts present in the case against St. Joseph's, the court opined that it would be unreasonable to require an employer to pass over the best qualified applicants for a position.
Over the EEOC's objection, the appeals court also agreed with the district court that a 30-day window to allow Bryk to submit applications for vacant positions was a reasonable accommodation as a matter of law. In reaching this conclusion, the court of appeals relied on two facts: that the hospital agreed to extend the 30-day period for any position for which Bryk was being considered and that she was not prohibited from applying for other positions after termination.
A jury hearing the case in the district court held that, while St. Joseph's had acted in good faith and despite evidence that it accommodated Bryk by allowing her to seek a transfer to a vacant position, it failed to reasonably accommodate Bryk by choosing not to place her into one of the three applied-for positions. Based on the evidence offered at trial, the appeals court held that sufficient evidence existed for a jury to conclude that Bryk was sufficiently qualified for the positions which were vacant at the time of her applications.
However, due to the EEOC's own proposed wording of the jury verdict form, which the court adopted, the jury did not find that St. Joseph's violated the ADA, despite the failure to accommodate. It found instead that the hospital acted in good faith, which the form equated with a verdict for the hospital. Only later did the EEOC argue that good faith was relevant as to damages, not liability.
The district court granted the EEOC relief from the error of its wording of the jury verdict form. The appeals court reversed and directed judgment in favor of the hospital. The appeals court found that the EEOC delayed raising its concerns about the wording of the verdict form until after the district court entered judgment in the hospital's favor and that the delay was a poor strategic choice.
EEOC v. St. Joseph's Hospital, M.D. Fla., 8:13-cv-02723 (Dec. 7, 2016).
Professional Pointer: Notwithstanding the EEOC error in St. Joseph's Hospital, the underlying facts are an important reminder for employers to exercise careful diligence in fulfilling to completion their accommodation obligations.
Scott M. Wich is an attorney with the law firm of Clifton Budd & DeMaria LLP in New York City.
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