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EEOC v. United Airlines, Inc. - 693 F.3d 760 (7th Cir. 2012)


The Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C.S. § 12101 et seq., requires employers to appoint disabled employees to vacant positions, provided that such accommodations would not create an undue hardship or run afoul of a collective bargaining agreement.


Plaintiff Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleged United Airlines, Inc’s competitive reasonable accommodation transfer policy violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C.S. §§ 12101 et seq. EEOC asks the court to change its interpretation of the ADA. The case turns on the meaning of the word "reassignment."  The ADA includes "reassignment to a vacant position" as a possible "reasonable accommodation" for disabled employees. 42 U.S.C.S. § 12111(9). The EEOC contends that "reassignment" under the ADA requires employers to appoint employees who are losing their current positions due to disability to a vacant position for which they are qualified. The district court granted United Airlines’ motion to dismiss, finding Humiston-Keeling as binding precedent that the policy did not violate the ADA and Barnett did not undermine Humiston-Keeling. EEOC appealed.


Did the district court err in granting United Airlines’ motion to dismiss?




Humiston-Keeling, directly on point, held the ADA did not require reassignment of a disabled employee to a job for which there was a better applicant, provided the employer's policy consistently and honestly hired the best applicant. In Barnett, the U.S. Supreme Court noted that the simple fact that an accommodation would provide a "preference" — in permitting a disabled worker to violate a rule others had to obey — could not, in and of itself, automatically show that the accommodation was not reasonable. Barnett outlined a two-step, case-specific approach: a plaintiff only had to show that an accommodation seemed reasonable on its face (ordinarily or in the run of cases), and the burden then shifted to the employer to show special (typically case-specific) circumstances of undue hardship in the particular circumstances. On remand, the district court was to conduct the Barnett analysis, but first considering if mandatory reassignment was ordinarily, in the run of cases, a reasonable accommodation, and if so, then determine if fact-specific considerations particular to the airline's employment system would create an undue hardship and render mandatory reassignment unreasonable.

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