HR Management & Compliance, Recruiting

Second Circuit Rules on ‘Qualified Individual’ Under Rehabilitation Act

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, whose decisions control in New York, recently ruled on whether an individual was qualified to receive the benefit of a reasonable accommodation during the pre-application testing process. Read on to understand how this case affects your own hiring procedures.


Ike Williams, who is deaf and a locksmith by trade, sued MTA Bus Company under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973—which incorporates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standard—alleging discrimination based on his hearing disability when he was denied the assistance of an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter for the MTA’s knowledge-based pre-employment examination for an assistant stock worker position.

The district court granted summary judgment (dismissal without a trial) in favor of the MTA. Williams appealed to the Second Circuit.

Qualified Individual

On appeal, the Second Circuit affirmed the lower court’s dismissal. It based its decision on the statutory text, legislative history, and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidance, all of which supported the conclusion that Williams was required to show he was a “qualified individual” to prevail on his failure-to-accommodate discrimination claim under the ADA. Put to the test, he failed to show he could perform the essential functions of the stock worker position, with or without a reasonable accommodation, because his previous work experience as a locksmith didn’t meet the position’s minimum “prior experience” qualifications.

Here, the MTA job posting required three years of experience as “a stock assistant, stock clerk, or stock worker in an industrial, manufacturing, or wholesaling business which stocks railroad, automotive, machine, aircraft or marine maintenance tools, production parts, or plumbing, hardware or sheet metal supplies and tools” or two years of similar experience with a high school diploma or a satisfactory equivalent for the required education and experience. Based on Williams’ failure to possess the requisite qualification, the Second Circuit found he wasn’t a qualified individual entitled to the requested ASL testing accommodation.


The MTA prevailed in this case because its job posting was specific on the requisite previous experience qualifications. In addition to education and previous work experience qualifications, your company’s job postings and descriptions should specify all of the position’s essential functions, which will be invaluable later. For example, good attendance is often assumed to be part of the job. A failure to specify attendance as an essential function of the position, however, may leave you exposed if the employee is later absent for extended periods of time or is frequently late. Review your job postings and descriptions so they specify all of the needed qualifications.

Paul J. Sweeney is an attorney with Coughlin & Gerhart, LLP in Binghamton, New York. He may be reached at

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