(1992) (emphasis added). The question for decision today is whether "the position in question" against which to evaluate Taylor's qualifications is the job he performed before his disability -- rigger -- or whether, to have a valid Rehabilitation Act claim, Taylor must only have been able to perform the essential functions of the light-duty positions to which he was assigned after he injured his back. None of the cases cited by either party directly addresses this issue.
The Navy's position can be concisely summarized. Taylor was hired as a rigger and remained formally classified as a rigger; therefore, rigger was the "position in question," and, even though Taylor might have been qualified to perform other jobs within the Navy and even though he was assigned to perform light-duty work, Taylor was only protected by the Rehabilitation Act insofar he was "otherwise qualified" to be a rigger. As an initial matter, it is important to note that the Navy's stance presupposes that it had no obligation under the Rehabilitation Act to transfer Taylor, once he proved unable to perform his original job, to another suitable, permanent position within the agency or to reclassify him within his medical restrictions. That premise may prove to be true once the surrounding circumstances of this case are fleshed out at trial -- as they have not been up to this point -- but it cannot be sustained categorically, as would be necessary to direct partial summary judgment in favor of the Navy on the limited factual record before me.
Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act requires federal agencies such as the Navy to "submit to the [Equal Opportunity] Commission and to the Committee an affirmative action program plan for the hiring, placement, and advancement of individuals with handicaps in such [agency]." 29 U.S.C. § 791(b). It is understood that section 501, in addition to requiring non-discrimination in federal employment, "creates judicially enforceable rights to affirmative action in federal employment placement and promotion." Davis v. United States Postal Serv., 675 F. Supp. 225, 231 (M.D. Pa. 1987); see also Rosiak, 679 F. Supp. at 449. Section 501, like section 504, also includes a duty of reasonable accommodation; however section 501's requirement of affirmative action, incumbent only on federal employers, extends beyond the duty of reasonable accommodation incumbent upon federal grantees covered by section 504. See Southeastern Community College, 442 U.S at 410-11; see supra note 5. Attuned to these twin duties of affirmative action and reasonable accommodation, the EEOC -- the agency charged with enforcing section 501 -- has issued a directive providing that "each agency has a special obligation to provide reasonable accommodation for employees who become disabled and to identify positions within the agency or in other agencies in which the individuals can function in spite of their disabilities." Equal Employment Opportunity Management Directive No. EEO-MD-712, at 9 (Mar. 9, 1983) (emphasis added), quoted in Kathryn W. Tate, The Federal Employer's Duties Under the Rehabilitation Act: Does Reasonable Accommodation or Affirmative Action Include Reassignment?, 67 Tex. L. Rev. 781, 836 n. 279 (1989); see also Federal Personnel Manual, § 1.3(b), ("Every reasonable effort should be made to reassign [an employee who is handicapped or who develops handicaps] to duties he or she can perform efficiently and safely . . . before taking action to separate him or her for disability."), quoted in Coley v. Secretary of the Army, 689 F. Supp. 519, 522 (D.Md. 1987); Handbook on Reasonable Accommodation, United States Office of Personnel Management, at 10 ("In cases of current Federal employees who become disabled after employment, agencies have a responsibility to make every effort for their continued utilization. . . . Reassignment: The employee's work experience and education may indicate that he or she can perform satisfactorily in another position. . . . Reassignment need not necessarily be limited to positions of the same grade or series."), quoted in Rhone v. United States Dep't of the Army, 665 F. Supp. 734, 743-44 (E.D. Mo. 1987). Further, as plaintiff points out, the Federal Workers' Compensation Act and corresponding regulations encourage the employing federal agencies to investigate whether a partially disabled employee can be provided an alternative position within the agency. See 20 C.F.R. § 10.123(c) (1992). When such an offer of suitable employment within the employing agency is made, the employee is obligated to return to that employment or else suffer termination of entitlement to workers' compensation. See 5 U.S.C. § 8106(c); 20 C.F.R. § 10.124(c),(e).
Discussing the requirement of accommodation under section 504, the Supreme Court has suggested, in dicta, that the Rehabilitation Act -- while it does not invariably create a right in a handicapped employee to be reassigned to a light-duty job as a reasonable accommodation
-- may, in certain limited circumstances, oblige an employer to accommodate a handicapped employee who is no longer qualified to perform his original job by placing him in a different position.
Employers have an affirmative obligation to make a reasonable accommodation for a handicapped employee. Although they are not required to find another job for an employee who is not qualified for the job he or she is doing, they cannot deny an employee alternative employment opportunities reasonably available under the employer's existing policies.
Arline, 480 U.S. 273, 289 (1987) (emphasis added).
Sensitive to this admonition, some courts have decided that, where other positions are reasonably available under an agency's existing policies, the phrase "position in question" necessarily includes other positions within the agency to which an employee could be reassigned.
That the Rehabilitation Act may require an
employee to look to a handicapped employee's fitness to perform other jobs than that in which the employee was originally hired casts doubt on the limited, retrospective definition of the phrase "position in question" urged by the Navy.
In its pretrial memorandum, the Navy described its reassignment procedure at PNSY as follows:
It was the practice at PNSY to make reasonable accommodations for employees with light-duty work restrictions by referring the employees to shops for temporary assignments. PNSY made no permanent light-duty assignments.
Defendants' Pretrial Memorandum at 4.
Still, there is no factual basis in the record demonstrating (1) that this is the Navy's policy with respect to accommodation of handicapped workers (as alleged); (2) why permanent light-duty assignments are resisted; (3) whether there were any permanent positions at the PNSY consistent with Taylor's medical restrictions during the years in question; and (4) whether a different policy with respect to permanent light-duty assignments would impose an undue hardship on the Navy.
Cf. Strathie, 716 F.2d at 231 ("A handicapped individual who cannot meet all of a program's requirements is not otherwise qualified if there is a factual basis in the record reasonably demonstrating that accommodating that individual would require either a modification of the essential nature of the program, or impose an undue burden on the recipient of federal funds."). Therefore, insofar as the Navy's motion for partial summary judgment depends, in the first instance, on its claim that permanent light-duty assignments were not reasonably available under its existing policies, I cannot divine enough about the Navy's policies from the limited record before me to make a ruling at this stage as to whether the Navy's refusal to reclassify Taylor was consistent with the Rehabilitation Act. For this reason alone, partial summary judgment in favor of the Navy would be inappropriate.
However, my decision to deny summary judgment does not hinge on the present uncertainty as to whether the Navy had an obligation to reassign Taylor to a permanent light-duty position. Even if the phrase "position in question" does not include other positions within the agency to which the plaintiff aspires for purposes of a reassignment claim and the Navy, accordingly, had no duty to reassign Taylor to a light-duty position, certainly when an employee has been offered light-duty work -- work that he must accept in order to maintain workers' compensation eligibility -- and that employee challenges the conditions of, and the reasons for his separation from, such light-duty work, the relevant inquiry must be his qualifications to perform that work in which he was engaged when the alleged discrimination occurs. No case cited by defendant is to the contrary.
The cases cited by defendants stand collectively for the proposition that an employee is properly fired if that employee cannot perform the essential features of his job. However, the Navy has never suggested that Taylor was discharged because of his inability to perform the job of rigger or even, more broadly, that his qualifications as a rigger had anything whatsoever to do with his discharge.
Indeed, the Navy agreed to place Taylor in light-duty assignments despite his lack of qualification as a rigger-- or, one might even say, because of his lack of qualifications as a rigger. Still, the Navy submits that Taylor has no protections under the Rehabilitation Act because he is not "otherwise qualified" to be a rigger. Such a construction of the Rehabilitation Act and its regulations -- in addition to being undocumented in the case law -- would make nonsense out of the Act. If one were to accept the Navy's rigid definition of the "position in question," an employer who chose to reassign to light-duty work an employee who had become unable to perform his original job would have an unsettling "carte blanche" power over that employee. During the course of the handicapped worker's light-duty employment, the employer would be able, without any sanction under the Rehabilitation Act, to harass that worker because of his handicap, fail reasonably to accommodate that worker's disability, or otherwise engage in handicap-based discrimination simply because the employee was not "qualified" for a position that had nothing to do with his current work.
This result is particularly egregious where, if plaintiff's contentions are to believed, PNSY's temporary light-duty placement system is itself designed to harm disabled workers, and disabled workers such as Taylor, who are forced to accept offers of "suitable" employment in order to remain eligible for workers' compensation benefits, return to PNSY to encounter inadequate accommodation of their disabilities within their "light-duty" assignments and a hostile work environment.
In short, to allow an employer to operate outside the Rehabilitation Act simply due to the formal job title that the employer has chosen to confer on a handicapped employee contradicts not only common sense, but also the basic promise set forth in the regulations implementing the Rehabilitation Act that "the federal government shall become a model employer of handicapped individuals." 29 C.F.R. § 1613.703 (1992).
The phrase "the position in question" should not be defined so as to constrain the bounds of a federal employer's obligation to make reasonable accommodations in the workplace for its disabled employees, but rather should be interpreted consistently with that duty of reasonable accommodation to ensure that an employer need not retain a worker in a position whose basic functions that worker is unqualified to perform. Therefore, Taylor's lack of qualifications to perform the job of rigger does not prevent him from claiming that the Navy failed to make reasonable accommodations for his disability when he was assigned to do light-duty work and that the Navy separated him from his light-duty employment because of that disability. Accordingly, defendant's motion for partial summary judgment will be denied. An appropriate order follows.
For the reasons given in the accompanying memorandum, it is hereby ORDERED and DIRECTED that the defendant Secretary of the Navy's motion for partial summary judgment (doc. #39) is DENIED.
MAY 4, 1993
Louis H. Pollak, J.