September 10, 2012
Seventh Circuit Holds Reassignment Likely to Be Reasonable Accommodation under ADA
The Seventh Circuit issued an important decision on Friday in EEOC v. United Airlines, No. 11-1774. Through an unusual procedural device, the court overruled prior precedent and held that under the ADA, reassignment of an employee who becomes disabled can be a reasonable accommodation that the employer must provide. The prior case was EEOC v. Humiston-Keeling, 227 F.3d 1024 (7th Cir. 2000), in which the court had held that the ADA did not require that a vacant position be given to an employee with a disability where a better qualified employee also wanted it because the ADA was only a "nondiscrimination" statute, and not a "mandatory preference" statute. Two years later, the Supreme Court decided US Airways v. Barnett, 535 U.S. 391 (2002), holding that, in fact, sometimes the ADA did require what looked like preferential treatment of employees with disabilities to put them on an even playing field.
In EEOC v. UAL, the court remanded the matter to the district court to apply the two part test that Barnett requires: 1. Is mandatory reassignment, ordinarily, in the run of cases, a reasonable accommodation; and if so, 2. are there fact-specific considerations particular to this employer's employment system that would create an undue hardship and render mandatory reassignment unreasonable? There is an alternative test, too. If the court answers "no" to number 1, then the plaintiff has a chance to prove at step 2 that special factors make mandatory reassignment reasonable in this case. The court also gave some guidance on when mandatory reassignment will not be reasonable, i.e. in a workplace with a bona fide seniority system, something the court called rather rare and which it noted was absent here. The court suggested that it was extremely likely that the district court would find that mandatory reassignment will be reasonable in the run of cases at United Airlines.
With this decision, the 7th Circuit joined the 10th and D.C. Circuits (both of which had issued opinions en banc before Barnett) in holding that mandatory reassignment was required unless it would create an undue hardship for an employer. The 8th Circuit, which had relied on Humiston-Keeling, may want to rethink its position.
h/t Mark Weber (DePaul)
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And of course undue hardship would be a very difficult burden for an employer to meet unless it is a small employer with minimal opportunity. Very interesting decision. From a corporate perspective, I can see how this would cause tension in the workplace as deserving non disabled employees have to give up a job they might have been vying for due to a need to accommodate someone else. I am curious to see if other circuits follow this lead, and how companies adapt to this clarified reality.
Posted by: Kendall Isaac | Sep 11, 2012 6:48:39 AM