Human Resources News & Insights

Disabled worker needs transfer: Can you make him compete for job opening?

When an employee is no longer able to perform his or her essential job functions due to a disability, do you have to reassign that employee to a new position for which he or she’s qualified — ahead of better-qualified employees? 

The answer: Yes.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled:

“the ADA does indeed mandate that an employer assign 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.”

Translation: If one of your disabled employees needs a transfer to keep working — and they’re qualified for one of your vacant positions — you’ve got to give the person the job. That is unless you can prove that offering that person the job over another potential candidate would amount to an unreasonable accommodation. But that argument would be difficult to make.

Employer to pay $1M

The ruling was made in a lawsuit the EEOC filed against United Airlines. The agency accused the airline of illegally requiring workers with disabilities to compete for vacant positions for which they were qualified. Such a policy violated the ADA, the EEOC claimed.

United argued the policy didn’t violate the ADA, and it won the case — initially.

But when the decision was reviewed by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, it was overturned.

The Seventh Circuit ruled the requirement that disabled employees must compete for positions fell short of the ADA’s requirements to provide reasonable accommodations to those individuals.

United petitioned the Supreme Court to review the case, but the request was turned down. That means the appeals court ruling stood — and the EEOC could pursue its case and try to prove that United illegally denied disabled individuals reassignment.

But that case won’t be heard, because United has just decided to settle the lawsuit — to the tune of $1M, which will be paid to a class of former United employees with disabilities.

As part of the settlement, United also agreed to revise its reassignment policy to bring it into compliance with the ADA, train employees and managers on the policy changes, and provide reports to the EEOC on disabled individuals who are denied reassignment.

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