Disabled Deputy Sheriff in Virginia Was Not Discriminated Against By Losing Out on Open Job Position to More Qualified Individual

By: Loyd Willaford and Sarah Burke

In United States v. Woody, a former deputy sheriff was unable to perform her job after being diagnosed with a heart condition and asked for a transfer to a different position. A position opened but the deputy sheriff was not the most qualified applicant and did not receive the job. The deputy sheriff sued and alleged that she had been discriminated against because of her disability. A United States District Court in Virginia disagreed and dismissed the sheriff’s lawsuit.

Emily Hall had been employed as a deputy sheriff for nine years when she was diagnosed with a heart condition. The condition was severe enough to limit her ability to have direct contact with inmates and other individuals. Because of this restriction, Hall could no longer perform the duties of a deputy sheriff and she requested a civilian position. A position as a payroll technician became available and Hall, along with eight other people, applied. The sheriff had a policy of hiring the most qualified candidate for vacant positions. Hall was the least qualified of the applicants and therefore she did not receive the position. After this decision, Hall sued the department and the EEOC referred the matter to the United States Department of Justice who took over representation of Hall.

The main issue before the district court was whether the ADA requires an employer to reassign a disabled employee to a vacant position or whether an employer is allowed to maintain a neutral and nondiscriminatory policy of hiring the most qualified applicant. To determine this, the district court first looked to the requirements outlined in the ADA itself, that employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations, unless doing so would cause an undue burden. The Court also noted:

Congress passed the ADA to eliminate barriers to equal opportunity facing disabled Americans, not to grant disabled employees a competitive edge.

The Department of Justice argued that if an employer were allowed to choose the most qualified person it would frustrate the protections the ADA sought to establish for disabled people. The district court was not persuaded by this argument and instead held that when a reassignment of a disabled employee would not be reasonable, an employer does not violate the ADA. Here, the district court ruled that it would be unreasonable to ask the department to abandon its neutral practice of hiring the most qualified employee for vacant positions and dismissed Hall’s suit.

This case is an example of two disturbing currents in some court’s jurisprudence regarding discrimination cases. The first current is the argument that affirmative action, reasonable accommodations, and other remedies to discrimination amount to illegal discrimination against those not in protected classes. This out-of-context, theoretical argument sounds nice, but it has real-world consequences which perpetuate discrimination. To the extent that affirmative action or reasonable accommodations obligates employers to make different choices than the employers would otherwise make, they are discriminatory. 

However, all employment decisions are discriminatory. This is because they involve choices. Our anti-discrimination laws require that employers exercise their discriminatory choices in a way that is not unfair to those with disabilities or those of a sex, race, national origin, or religion.   This Court’s argument that to accommodate a disabled person illegally discriminates against a non-disabled person completely ignores the broader context and goals of anti-discrimination laws.  It permits employers to hide behind a patina of “neutrality” when choosing not to hire qualified historically oppressed minorities or not accommodate qualified persons with disabilities.  

The second disturbing current this case illustrates is the idea that judges should decide whether an employer’s actions are “reasonable” or not. The general rule is that where there are legitimate differences of opinion as to whether an action is reasonable, a jury of six or twelve ordinary people, not a single judge, should decide the issue. Here the judge in this case decided that simply because an employer had a policy of hiring the most-qualified person for the job, that it would have been unreasonable for the employer to select a disabled person who was qualified for the job.

An accommodation is not reasonable where presents an “undue hardship” to the employer. Employers often must make exceptions to reasonable policies to accommodate those with disabilities. A reasonable juror could have looked at the employer’s policy and the surrounding facts in this case and decided that it would not have resulted in a hardship to the employer to allow a qualified disabled person to do the job even where there was a more qualified non-disabled person.  This fact-specific inquiry would have been in keeping with the purposes of our anti-discrimination law.  Instead, the judge in this case decided with almost no analysis  what should have been a jury question. The Seventh Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees a right to a jury trial. Rulings like this one undermine that right.

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