The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an important employment-law case, Huber v. Wal-Mart Stores, that will decided whether disabled employees who are returning to work are entitled to a preference for open positions. Lower courts are split on the issue, and the Supreme Court appears ready to resolve the issue for good.
The case involves Pam Huber, who worked for Wal-Mart as a grocery order filler at $13 per hour. She injured her right arm on the job and could no longer perform that position. Both Huber and Wal-Mart agreed her condition was a disability under the ADA.
Huber and Wal-Mart began exploring "reasonable accommodations" to her disability, as the law requires. Huber suggested a router position for which she was qualified. The position paid a comparable salary. Wal-Mart agreed to have Huber compete for the opening but, citing its policy of hiring the best qualified person for each position, would not guarantee her the job.
Huber didn't win the job. The candidate who did get the job was better qualified, as both Wal-Mart and Huber agreed. Huber eventually took a janitor position at $6.20 per hour. She filed suit under the ADA claiming the law required Wal-Mart to place her in a position comparable to the one she left.
She had good reason to believe that. In fact the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals stated in Smith v. Midland Brake that “the reassignment obligation must mean something more than merely allowing a disabled person to compete equally with the rest of the world for a vacant position.” The Arkansas federal district court agreed and ruled in Huber’s favor. Wal-Mart appealed.
Wal-Mart noted in its appeal that a different circuit court (the 7th Circuit) saw the issue quite differently. In EEOC v. Hummiston-Keeling, the court said that requiring employers to give preference to disabled workers would “convert a nondiscrimination statute into a mandatory preference statute.” Wal-Mart also argued that it did accommodate Huber. It may not have granted the accommodation she wanted, but it was a reasonable accommodation.
How will the court rule? One earlier case may provide a hint. In U.S. Airways v. Barnett , the Supreme Court noted that employers do not have to violate existing policies to accommodate disabled workers. No doubt Wal-Mart is counting on this. But the Supremes have surprised us before. Look for a ruling in the spring.