This week, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review EEOC v. United Airlines, Inc., a Seventh Circuit decision (which overruled its prior precedent) holding that the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) obligates employers to reassign newly disabled workers to open job positions, thus reviving a class action the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission filed against an airline alleging it violated the ADA by failing to automatically assign disabled workers to vacant positions they were minimally capable of filling. The Seventh Circuit, agreeing with earlier decisions by the Tenth Circuit and the D.C. Circuit, ruled that the ADA mandates 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 that employer. The airline’s position in the appeal was that the Seventh Circuit misunderstood Supreme Court precedent and, in doing so, found that employers had to take affirmative action on behalf of their disabled workers, which was a greater requirement than the laws from which the ADA was modeled. The initial suit sought an injunction barring the airline from making disabled employees compete with other applicants for jobs they were minimally qualified for and asked the court to force the company to institute new policies, as well as to pay the workers lost income, prejudgment interest, past and future pecuniary losses including medical expenses and compensation for emotional distress and humiliation.
The takeaway from the Supreme Court’s denial of review is that the Seventh Circuit’s ruling will stand, at least for now, and may limit an employer’s ability to hire the most qualified applicant for a position under certain circumstances.