ADA Blog


ADA Blog #169

#Supreme #Court won’t hear ADA accommodations case

Does the #ADA, as a possible form of #reasonable #accommodation, require that employers reassign employees, who can no longer perform the functions of their jobs due to #disability, to other positions?

An important decision by our nation’s high court leaves in place a lower court ruling about how #United #Airlines handles the way it accommodates its employees. United’s policy said that if an employee becomes unable to do his job due to a disability, s/he could apply to transfer to another vacant position within the company. The policy guaranteed that employee an interview for the vacant position, but it didn’t guarantee him the job. The policy stated that the selection process would be competitive.

I’m assuming the policy also included a statement that the employee must also be qualified to do the job applied for. But the question is, does the employee have to compete for the job, or should the vacant position be viewed as a form of reasonable accommodation?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (#EEOC) sued the airline in a California court for violating the ADA, claiming the policy failed to provide “reasonable accommodations” to employees with disabilities. The court transferred the case to the 7th Circuit (Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin), which held that workers with disabilities should be automatically reassigned to open positions for which they are qualified, unless the employer can establish an undue hardship (which means a significant difficulty or expense) that would result in that reassignment.

A panel of three judges wrote in its decision at the time, “The present case offers us the opportunity to correct this continuing error in our jurisprudence. We reverse and 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."

“If all reassignment meant was the opportunity to compete for a vacancy, there would be no accommodation at all"
--Christopher Kuczynski, EEOC assistant legal counsel and director of the EEOC's ADA division.

Okay, but what about reassignment in the context of a seniority system? In the Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in U.S. Airways, Inc. v. Barnett, which looked at reassignment in the context of U.S. Airways’ seniority system, the high court found that U.S. Airways did not have to violate its seniority system to provide reassignment as an accommodation; however, it did write that “the simple fact that an accommodation would provide a ‘preference’—in the sense that it would permit the worker with a disability to violate a rule that others must obey—cannot in and of itself, automatically show that the accommodation is not ‘reasonable.”

In this case, the court approached accommodation using a “Two-Step Test”:

An accommodation that allows a #disabled worker to violate a rule that other employees must obey “cannot, in and of itself, automatically show that the accommodation is not ‘reasonable,’” the Supreme Court ruled in U.S. Airways, Inc. v. Barnett. In that 2002 decision, the high court outlined a two-step test to determine if an accommodation is reasonable:

1. The plaintiff must show that the accommodation in question would normally be reasonable.
2. Then the burden shifts to the employer to show special circumstances that demonstrate that allowing the accommodation would be an “undue hardship.”

Review your company’s current policy concerning the process for addressing accommodations, especially when an employee can no longer do a job because of disability.

This information should not be construed as “legal advice” for a particular set of facts or circumstances. It is intended only to be a practical guide for participants familiar with this subject. Users should seek appropriate legal advice tailored to address their specific situation.