Monday, December 10, 2007

Supreme Court grants cert petition in Huber v. Wal-Mart Stores

Huber v. Wal-Mart Stores poses the following question: if an employer has an established policy to fill vacant job positions with the most qualified applicant, is that employer nevertheless required to reassign a qualified disabled employee to a vacant position even if that disabled employee is not the most qualified person for the job. The Supreme Court has agreed to review the decision of the 8th Circuit, which answered that question in the negative.

Pam Huber worked for Wal-Mart as a dry grocery order filler, earning $13 per hour. A permanent injury to her arm and hand left her unable to perform the essential functions of her job. As a reasonable accommodation for her disability, Huber asked that Wal-Mart reassign her to a vacant and equivalent position. Instead of agreeing to reassignment as the reasonable accomodation, Wal-Mart told Huber that she could apply and compete for the position. Huber ended up not being the most qualified applicant. Wal-Mart hired someone else for the job, and placed Huber in a janitorial position that paid her less than half of what she made before her injury.

Huber filed suit under the ADA, claiming that she should have been reassigned to the open position as a reasonable accommodation. Wal-Mart defended on the ground that it had a legitimate non-discriminatory policy of hiring the most qualified applicant for all job vacancies and was not required to violate that policy to accommodate Huber's disability. In a very rare instance, the trial court granted summary judgment in Huber's favor, which the 8th Circuit reversed.

The 8th Circuit's analysis starts with the general principle that reassignment to a vacant position generally qualifies as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. According to the 8th Circuit, however, the ADA is not a mandatory preference act, and it should not violate the ADA for an employer to make a legitimate non-discriminatory decision to hire the most qualified candidate, even if it results in a disadvantage to a disabled employee. Also, the ADA does not entitle a disabled employee to his or her preferred accommodation, only a reasonable accommodation. Thus, the 8th Circuit concluded: "The ADA does not require Wal-Mart to turn away a superior applicant for the router position in order to give the position to Huber. To conclude otherwise is affirmative action with a vengeance. That is giving a job to someone solely on the basis of his status a member of a protected class." (internal quotations omitted).

It is unclear in the 6th Circuit how this case would have come out, and there are courts (such as the 10th Circuit) that differ and hold that the ADA requires employers to automatically award an open position to a qualified disabled employee if even better qualified applicant are available and despite an employer's policy to hire the best person for the job.

A ruling for the employee in this case would undermine one of the most important commandments of employment law - Thou shalt hire the most qualified person for all open positions. When you don't hire the best person, it could lead a court to second-guess your judgment and question why a member of a protected class was overlooked in favor of the second/third/fourth/whatever best person. Which illustrates another important principle of employment law - when you're explaining, you're losing.