Circuit court rules against United Airlines in reasonable accommodation case

United Airline Plane
Ruling Against United Airlines

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit ruled September 7 that United Airlines must reassign employees, whose disability prevents them from continuing their previous job, to new positions as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

United Airlines’ policy for employees in this position had been to allow them to reapply on the company’s website for vacant positions. The 7th Circuit, in ruling that this form of competitive reassignment policy runs counter to the ADA, accepted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s argument that the company must automatically reassign these employees to vacant positions, as opposed to giving them to the “most qualified” candidates.

“We hold 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 that employee,” the court wrote in its opinion.

The decision overrules another 7th Circuit decision in a similar case from 2000. In the most recent decision, the 7th Circuit stated that its reversal is influenced by the  Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in U.S. Airways v. Barnett. That decision, in ruling on the merits of a reasonable accommodation in the context of a company’s seniority system, stated that “preferences will sometimes prove necessary to achieve the (Americans with Disabilities) Act’s basic equal opportunity goal.”

United Airlines is the nation’s largest airline employer.

The 7th Circuit’s decision mirrors similar decisions in the 10th Circuit and the District of Columbia Circuit.

However, the 8th Circuit upheld a similar competitive reassignment policy, representing a split in the circuit courts which makes the case a likely candidate for review by the Supreme Court, as noted by University of Michigan Law professor Samuel Bagenstos on The Supreme Court granted certiorari to hear a similar case in 2007, but did not rule on the case after the parties reached a settlement.