Federal Court Revives EEOC Disability Discrimination Lawsuit Against United Airlines

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A federal court has reinstated a disability discrimination lawsuit against United Airlines that had been dismissed.

The circuit court overturned precedent in a decision announced 7 September 2012 to agree with EEOC the 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 their current job.

United Airline isn't so friendly to disabled employees.

United Airline isn’t so friendly to disabled employees.

The case is Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. United Airlines Inc., 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 11-1774.

The EEOC’s suit charged that United Airlines violated the ADA by refusing to place workers with disabilities in vacant jobs they were qualified and that they needed in order to continue working.

Instead, UAL required these employees to compete for jobs on the company website. United’s practice frequently prevented employees with disabilities from continuing to work.

The ADA-Unfriendly Skies Of United

In June 2009, the EEOC filed the original lawsuit against United in the Northern District of California. That lawsuit was based on investigations of numerous discrimination charges filed by United Airlines employees in San Francisco and Chicago.

United successfully received a change of venue to the Northern District of Illinois, where the company is headquartered and an earlier Seventh Circuit case, EEOC v. Humiston Keeling, had held that a competitive transfer policy did not violate the ADA.

In February 2011, bound by this precedent, the lower court dismissed the EEOC’s case against United.

On appeal, however, a three-judge Seventh Circuit panel agreed with the EEOC that Humiston Keeling “did not survive” an intervening Supreme Court decision, U.S. Airways v. Barnett.

The Court of Appeals held “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,” Circuit Judge Richard Cudahy wrote for the panel.

The case has been sent back to U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber in Chicago to review United’s policy.

Christen David, a spokeswoman for the airline told Reuters: “We are reviewing the opinion.”

“The Court’s decision will have far-reaching benefits for individuals with disabilities who strive for economic independence and want to work,” said David Lopez EEOC general counsel. “We are pleased that the case may now go forward.”

“We anticipate that numerous employees at United locations nationwide may have a claim in this systemic case,” said EEOC San Francisco Regional Attorney William R. Tamayo. “This case will allow them to seek reassignment and continue their careers with United.”

“In defining ‘reasonable accommodation’ to include ‘reassignment to a vacant position,’ Congress clearly intended to ensure that employees with disabilities remain productive workers even when they can no longer do their current jobs due to disability — as long as reassignment is possible and poses no undue hardship,” said Barbara Sloan, EEOC appellate attorney. “With its decision, the Seventh Circuit joins the D.C. and Tenth Circuits in implementing Congress’s intent.”

United has since merged with Continental Airlines to form United Continental Airlines.

United is one of the largest international airlines based in the U.S. United has about 50,000 employees the U.S. state and in many countries overseas. United operates air hubs in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

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