EEOC Secures $1 Million Settlement Against United Airlines

Author: Marta Moakley, XpertHR Legal Editor

June 16, 2015

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has agreed to a million dollar settlement in a hotly contested disability discrimination lawsuit against United Airlines that garnered national attention. The EEOC claimed that the airline's competitive transfer policy violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Employers should take note that maintaining a policy that provides for a competitive transfer process may run afoul of the ADA's protections for employees with disabilities.

The ADA requires that an employer provide reasonable accommodations to a qualified employee with a disability, unless doing so would result in an undue hardship for the employer. If a reasonable accommodation would prevent an employee from returning to work in his or her current position, then an employer may consider reassigning the employee to a vacant position. However, United Airlines had instituted a policy that employees would compete for vacant positions, even though the employees with disabilities needed those positions in order to continue working.

The lawsuit had been winding its way through the courts since 2009. Although the case was first filed in a federal court in California, it was later transferred to the Northern District of Illinois. The trial court sided with United Airlines, but the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that an employer may need to consider reassignment if an employee with a disability cannot be accommodated in his or her present position. In a 2013 ruling, the Supreme Court declined to consider the case.

EEOC Regional Attorney William Tamayo warned employers in a press release, "When all other accommodations fail, consider whether your employee can fill a vacant position for which he or she is qualified."

In addition to the monetary settlement, United Airlines will have to revise its ADA reassignment policy, train employees with supervisory or HR responsibilities regarding the policy changes and provide regular reports to the EEOC regarding any employees with disabilities who are denied a position as part of the reassignment process.