United Airlines to pay $1.04 million to settle employment case

Worker guides commercial jet on runway
United Airlines Compensates Employees

After nearly six years of litigation, the nation’s largest airline employer has agreed to pay compensation to a set of employees who lost their jobs under a reassignment policy that was struck down in federal court.

The Americans with Disabilities Act mandates that employers provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities. Under United Airlines’ policy, employees unable to work at a prior job due to their disabilities were required to reapply for vacant positions.

In response to complaints filed with the agency, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued United Airlines in June 2009, on the basis that the ADA requires United Airlines in certain circumstances to reassign these employees to vacant positions, rather than force them to reapply.

Although the District Court for the Northern District of California dismissed the case in February 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed 19 months later.

“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 employer,” the court wrote in an 11-page opinion [PDF].

To the surprise of some legal observers, the Supreme Court declined to review the case the following June.

Under the consent decree, approved June 11, United Airlines will pay $1.04 million to a class of former employees who were harmed by the job transfer policy. United Airlines must also revise its policy so that it is in line with the 7th Circuit’s decision and provide additional ADA training to company supervisors.

It must also submit regular reports to the EEOC regarding its compliance with the decree.

“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,” EEOC General Counsel David Lopez said in a news release. “I am pleased this major decision also served as a springboard for the strong monetary and non-monetary remedies in today’s resolution.”

The consent decree was signed by Judge Harry Leinenweber of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, the court where the case was assigned to after the 7th Circuit’s decision and the Supreme Court’s denial of review.

A Rooted in Rights e-newcast about the 7th Circuit’s decision can be seen here.