Employer’s Best-Qualified Policy to Fill Vacant Positions does not Negate Requirement to Provide a Reassignment Reasonable Accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act

The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit clarified the interpretation of the term “reassignment” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by concluding that an employer’s best-qualified policy to fill vacant positions would not automatically establish undue hardship to avoid the granting of a reasonable accommodation request. In EEOC v. United Airlines, the Seventh Circuit reversed the District Court’s dismissal of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) claim brought against United Airlines on behalf of disabled employees who requested a reasonable accommodation in the form of a reassignment but were denied that request because of a “competitive transfer policy.”

In 2003, United Airlines developed “Reasonable Accommodation Guidelines” that detailed the reasonable accommodation process for current employees who were no longer able to perform the essential functions of their job due to their disability. The guidelines indicated that a transfer could be a reasonable accommodation but the transfer process was “competitive.” The competitive transfer policy essentially denied disabled employees requesting a transfer as a reasonable accommodation automatic placement in vacant positions. Instead, disabled employees would only be given preferential treatment and a more qualified candidate could be chosen for the vacant position instead. The EEOC filed this suit on behalf of disabled United Airlines’ employees affected by this policy, asserting that the Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to advance a disabled employee requesting reassignment as a form of reasonable accommodation over a more qualified candidate so long as the disabled employee can perform the essential functions of the job and such placement does not cause an undue hardship.

The EEOC also asserted this argument in EEOC v. Humiston-Keeling. In Humiston-Keeling, the court held that “the ADA does not require an employer to reassign a disabled employee to a job for which there is a better applicant, provided it’s the employer’s consistent and honest policy to hire the best applicant for the particular job in question.” EEOC v. Humiston-Keeling, Inc., 227 F.3d 1024, 1029 (7th Cir. 2000). In this case, the EEOC requested the Court overturn that decision. In support of their argument, the EEOC cited to U.S. Airways Inc. v. Barnett. In Barnett, an employee of U.S. Airways injured his back but initially invoked his seniority status instead of his disability to obtain a transfer. However, two senior employees subsequently bid for the same position and the disabled employee, after asserting a request for a reasonable accommodation, was denied due to U.S. Airways’ seniority system. The Court determined that under those circumstances, the seniority system was sufficient to meet the employer’s burden of showing the accommodation was unreasonable. The Court noted that the seniority system, although a disability-neutral rule, did not provide an automatic exemption from accommodation requirements. Other facts specific to the situation established an undue hardship.

The Court also confirmed a two-step inquiry, articulated in Barnett, which must be applied to reasonable accommodation requests in the form of reassignments under the Americans with Disabilities Act. First, it must be determined if mandatory reassignment is ordinarily reasonable. Second, it must be determined if there are any specific considerations particular to the employer’s system that would cause undue-hardship and make mandatory reassignment unreasonable.

The Court corrected any confusion that a best-qualified system is the same as a seniority system as applied to disabled employees requesting a reassignment as a reasonable accommodation. The Court determined the holding in Mays v. Principi was in error in suggesting that a deviation from a best-qualified policy always presented an undue hardship. Mays v. Principi, 301 F.3d 866 (7th Cir. 2002). A disabled employee’s request for reassignment is considered a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act and an employer must show undue hardship to avoid a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act in denying such a request when vacant positions are available. A best-qualified selection policy does not automatically present such an undue hardship.

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