The Supreme Court made news last week when it did something seemingly inconsequential: It refused to hear an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) case. But the repercussions for employers could be huge.

The High Court opted not to review last fall’s EEOC v. United Airlines, Inc. decision that came out of the Seventh Circuit.

What it means for HR: Disabled workers may need to get preferential treatment for filling vacant positions at your firm — even if they’re not the most qualified person in the running for the job.

ADA woes

If you don’t recall the details of the original case, here they are:

In 2003, United Airlines established guidelines that addressed the reasonable accommodation of disabled employees.

The guidelines provided that a transfer to an equivalent position may be a reasonable accommodation, but that the transfer process remained competitive.

Consequently, disabled employees wouldn’t automatically be placed into a vacant position, but instead, they’d be given preferential treatment.

The EEOC challenged the guidelines, and a district court granted United Airlines’ motion to dismiss.

The district court relied upon an earlier ruling that “the ADA does not require an employer to reassign a disabled employee to a job for which there is a better applicant, provided it’s the employer’s consistent and honest policy to hire the best applicant for the particular job in question.”

On appeal, the EEOC argued that “reassignment to a vacant position” is a possible ADA reasonable accommodation, and it required the transfer of a disabled employee to a vacant position who lost his or her position due to a disability.

In the appeal, the judges relied on an earlier Supreme Court decision in which the high court outlined a two-step process to determine whether a job reassignment is required despite a disability-neutral rule of the employer.

The first step requires the employee to show that the type of accommodation seems reasonable on its face.

The second step varies depending on the outcome of the first step. If the employee shows that the accommodation is reasonable,  the burden shifts to the employer to show special case-specific circumstances that demonstrate undue hardship.

The Supreme Court’s decision not to review the case means the Seventh Circuit’s ruling stands.

Arlene K. Kline, writing for the HR Defense Blog, says what you’re all thinking about the decision: “[The ruling] may limit an employer’s ability to hire the most qualified applicant for a position under certain circumstances.”

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