Seventh Circuit Reverses Lower Courts Decision About Reasonable Accommodations for Workers with Disabilities

Monday, September 17, 2012

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed the dismissal of a disability discrimination lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against airline giant United Airlines Inc. The circuit court overturned precedent to agree with the EEOC that "reasonable accommodation" as defined by 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.   

The EEOC's suit charged that United violated the ADA by refusing to place workers with disabilities in vacant positions for which they were qualified and which they needed in order to continue working.  Instead, UAL required these employees to compete for jobs on the company website.  The company's practice frequently prevented employees with disabilities from continuing their employment. 

In June 2009, the EEOC filed the original lawsuit 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.  

On appeal, however, 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).  The Court of Appeals held 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 Court's decision will have far-reaching benefits for individuals with disabilities who strive for economic independence and want to work," said EEOC General Counsel David Lopez. "We are pleased that the case may now go forward." 

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