Supreme Court Denies United Airlines Petition to Hear Disability Discrimination Case, Requirements of "Reasonable Accommodation" Reassignment at Issue

Friday, May 31, 2013

In a closely watched case, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a written order denying air transportation giant United Airlines's petition for high court review of a disability discrimination lawsuit brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  This means the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeal's Sept. 7, 2012 decision will stand, holding that "reasonable accommodation" under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may require employers to provide employees with disabilities with "reassignment to a vacant position" when the employee cannot be accommodated in his or her current position.  (EEOC v. United Airlines, 1:10-CV-01699, U.S. Dist. Court, No. Dist. of Illinois; EEOC v. United Airlines, No. 11-1774. 7th Cir.)

The EEOC's lawsuit charged that United violated the ADA 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 their employment with the company. The Seventh Circuit reversed the dismissal of the EEOC's disability discrimination lawsuit and found that "the ADA does indeed mandate that an employer appoint 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 EEOC filed the original lawsuit on June 3, 2009 in the Northern District of California based on its investigation of a number of discrimination charges filed by United employees located in San Francisco and Chicago.  United successfully moved for a change of venue to the Northern District of Illinois, where an earlier Seventh Circuit case, EEOC v. Humiston Keeling, 227 F.3d 1024 (7th Cir. 2000), had already held that a competitive transfer policy did not violate the ADA.  In February 2011, the lower court, bound by this precedent, dismissed the EEOC's case against United.  However, in an en banc review, the Seventh Circuit agreed with the EEOC that Humiston Keeling "did not survive" an intervening Supreme Court decision, U.S. Airways v. Barnett, 535 U.S. 391 (2002). 

According to the company web site, United Airlines has almost 50,000 employees in every U.S. state and in many countries around the world.  The air carrier operates air travel hubs in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Chicago and Washington, D.C.  United is one of the largest international carriers based in the United States.

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