Supreme Court Lets Stand 7th Circuit Ruling That Reassignment Is Reasonable Accommodation
CHICAGO - In a case that garnered nationwide attention, air transportation giant United Airlines Inc. has agreed to pay more than $1 million and implement changes to settle a federal disability lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency announced today.
The EEOC's lawsuit charged that United's competitive transfer policy violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The law requires an employer to provide reasonable accommodation to an employee or job applicant with a disability, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship for the employer. By requiring workers with disabilities to compete for vacant positions for which they were qualified and which they needed in order to continue working, the company's practice frequently prevented employees with disabilities from continuing employment with United, the EEOC said.
The consent decree settling the suit, signed by Hon. Judge Harry Leinenweber and entered today, requires United to pay $1,000,040 to a small class of former United employees with disabilities and to make changes nationally. United will revise its ADA reassignment policy, train employees with supervisory or human resource responsibilities regarding the policy changes, and provide reports to the EEOC regarding disabled employees who were denied a position as part of the ADA reassignment process.
This resolution concludes a lengthy and complicated lawsuit. Although the EEOC originally filed the lawsuit on June 3, 2009 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California - San Francisco, United successfully moved for a change of venue to the Northern District of Illinois. Bound by an earlier precedent which held that a competitive transfer policy similar to United's policy did not violate the ADA, the lower court dismissed the EEOC's case in February 2011. However, in a decision reviewed by the full court, the Seventh Circuit agreed with the EEOC that EEOC v. Humiston Keeling, 227 F.3d 1024 (7th Cir. 2000) "did not survive" an intervening Supreme Court decision, U.S. Airways v. Barnett, 535 U.S. 391 (2002). The Seventh Circuit reversed the lower court's dismissal and found that "the ADA does indeed mandate that an employer assign employees with disabilities to vacant positions for which they are qualified, provided that such accommodations would be ordinarily reasonable and would not present an undue hardship to the employer." The Supreme Court refused United's subsequent request for review on May 28, 2013. EEOC Appellate Attorney Barbara Sloan handled the appeal and Supreme Court briefing for the agency.
"The appellate court's decision provided an important clarification regarding an employer's responsibility under the ADA to provide a reasonable accommodation so qualified employees may lead economically independent lives," said EEOC General Counsel David Lopez. "I am pleased this major decision also served as a springboard for the strong monetary and non-monetary remedies in today's resolution."
EEOC Regional Attorney William Tamayo said, "If a disability prevents an employee from returning to work in his or her current position, an employer must consider reassignment. As the Seventh Circuit's decision highlights, requiring the employee to compete for positions falls short of the ADA's requirements. Employers should take note: When all other accommodations fail, consider whether your employee can fill a vacant position for which he or she is qualified."
EEOC San Francisco Acting District Director Michael Connolly noted, "We commend United for agreeing to make these important companywide changes that will enable employees with disabilities to stay employed at jobs they are qualified to do, as was intended under the ADA's protections."
According to the company website, United Airlines has almost 84,000 employees in every U.S. state and in many countries around the world. The air carrier has the world's most comprehensive route network, including U.S. mainland hubs in Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, New York / Newark, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. and operates an average of nearly 5,000 flights a day to 373 airports across six continents.
The EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. Further information about the EEOC is available on its web site at www.eeoc.gov.