Fifth Circuit Sides with Employer’s “Most Qualified Applicant Policy” Over a Requested Reasonable Accommodation

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Attorney Harrison Oldham



On March 17, 2023, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals filed its opinion in the EEOC vs. the Methodist Hospitals of Dallas (the “Hospital”). The case is significant because (i) it considers the Hospital’s obligation to transfer a disabled employee, who could not perform the essential functions of their current position, to an open, vacant position, and (ii) the court ultimately ruled that the Hospital did not need to change its policy of hiring the most qualified candidate for a vacant position – even if doing so means rejecting a disabled employee that meets the minimum qualifications for that position. Stated another way, this ruling may be taken to mean that an employer is not ordinarily required to provide a competition-free transfer to a vacant position as a reasonable accommodation to a qualified individual with a disability.


In 2012 (when this case started), the Hospital followed the “most qualified applicant” policy to fill vacant positions. In short, when the Hospital needed to fill a vacant position, the Hospital’s human resources department reviewed all applications, eliminated those not meeting the requisite qualifications, and forwarded the remaining applications to the hiring manager, where all applicable candidates compete for job openings pursuant to the Hospital’s policy to hire “the most qualified applicant available” for every vacancy.


In 2008, Methodist hired Adrianna Cook as a patient care technician (“PCT”). On March 7, 2012, Cook injured her back on the job while turning a patient. The Hospital assisted Cook in obtaining medical care. Over the next month, Cook saw multiple physicians who notified the Hospital when Cook was unable to work and when she could work in a light-duty role. When Cook could work on light duty, the Hospital assigned her to a temporary position at the pharmacy. Then, after unsuccessfully attempting to return to her job as a PCT, Cook’s physicians certified that she was physically unable to work for several months. Cook then requested and received FMLA leave.


Several months later, Cook applied for a vacant scheduling coordinator position in the surgery department on the Hospital’s job bank. The position required that Cook be able to anticipate and assess potential scheduling and staffing problems; perform basic mathematical calculations; type at least thirty words per minute; read, write, and speak English; and communicate effectively. A hospital HR team member determined that Cook met the minimum qualifications for the position and forwarded Cook’s resume to the hiring manager. However, the hiring manager ultimately selected a different candidate. The Hospital eventually terminated Ms. Cook’s employment.


The EEOC brought suit, alleging that the Hospital’s most-qualified-applicant policy violates the ADA because the Hospital cannot categorically refuse to reassign disabled employees to a vacant position for which they are qualified. Requiring disabled employees to compete for jobs according to the Hospital’s established policy, the EEOC argued, is not a reasonable accommodation. The EEOC also alleged that the Hospital unlawfully refused to reassign Cook to the scheduling coordinator position after Cook could no longer perform the essential functions of a PCT due to her disability.


The district court ruled in Methodist’s favor. A three-judge appeals court panel agreed with the district court’s dismissal of the claim that the Hospital had unlawfully refused to reassign Ms. Cook but overturned the lower court concerning the Hospital’s most qualified applicant policy.


In reaching its decision, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals 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.” In Barnett, the Supreme Court considered whether “the [ADA] requires an employer to reassign a disabled employee to a position as a ‘reasonable accommodation’ even though another employee is entitled to hold the position under the employer’s bona fide and established seniority system.” The Court held that reassignment is not a reasonable accommodation when an employer has an established seniority system unless there are special circumstances.


The Texas court of appeals then applied the Supreme Court’s test from Barnett. In doing so, the court looked to the decisions of sister courts and ultimately agreed with the lower courts that mandatory reassignment violating the Hospital’s most-qualified-applicant policy is not reasonable in the run of cases. The ruling also provides that the “EOC’s proposed course of action turns the shield of the ADA into a sword, casting ‘the equally reasonable expectations of other workers’ to the side. What’s more, it ‘imposes substantial costs on the hospital and potentially on patients.’ When the lives of patients are on the line, mandatory reassignment in violation of a best-qualified system is unreasonable in the run of cases.”


Although the EEOC attempted to distinguish best-qualified systems from seniority systems by arguing that best-qualified systems are more discretionary because the employer sets the minimum qualifications for the role, the court explained that the Hospital’s disability-neutral policy stabilizes employee expectations. “It recognizes that basic fairness in such a context rests atop an often-rickety three-legged stool, whose legs are the employer, the disabled employee, and—easiest to neglect—the other employees.” Further, “[s]uch discretion is . . . fundamental to the employer’s freedom to run its business in an economically viable way.”


Ultimately, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals remanded the portion of the case concerning the Hospital’s s most-qualified-applicant policy for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. In remanding the case, the panel said the district court should focus on whether “a genuine dispute of material fact” calls for an exception to the Hospital’s most qualified applicant policy.


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About Harrison Oldham

Harrison grew up in Mansfield, Texas. He attended Texas A&M University for his bachelor’s degree, where he met his wonderful wife, Kelsey. After graduating magna cum laude from Texas A&M, he attended SMU Dedman School of Law, graduating with honors in 2012. Today, Harrison and his wife live in Dallas, Texas with their son, Teddy.

Since graduating from SMU Law, Harrison has worked exclusively in the field of business law. He has spent time in private practice and in-house, working with clients of every size; from single person startups to Fortune 250 companies. Today his practice focuses on serving the diverse needs of businesses and individuals throughout Texas. You can learn more about Harrison by visiting his website, at: http://lonestarbusinesslaw.com/.

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