On December 3, 2015, the 7th Circuit affirmed the entry of summary judgment in favor of the defendant employer in an employment discrimination action filed by an employee under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), in which the employee claimed that the employer violated the ADA by failing to provide him with a reasonable accommodation for his disability. Dunderdale v. United Airlines, No. 14-2911 (7th Cir., 12/3/2015). To establish a failure to accommodate claim under the ADA, an employee must demonstrate that: (1) she is a qualified individual with a disability; (2) the employer was aware of her disability; and (3) the employer failed to reasonably accommodate her disability. There were two issues in this case: (1) whether the plaintiff was a qualified individual with a disability; and (2) whether the employer failed to reasonably accommodate his disability.
Under the ADA, a qualified individual is an individual who can perform the essential functions of his or her job position, with or without reasonable accommodation. To determine what constitutes an essential job function, courts consider the employer’s judgment and the written job description of the position. In this case, the employee was able to perform his job with reasonable accommodation in a light duty position to which the employer transferred him for six years, until it removed him from the position. The employee argued that the employer failed to reasonably accommodate his disability by not allowing him to remain in the light duty position or assigning him to other light duty positions. However, the 7th Circuit held that the employer was not required to keep the employee in the light duty position because that would have violated its seniority system. The 7th Circuit stated that the United States Supreme Court has held that it is unreasonable to assign an employee to a position as an accommodation if doing so would violate the employer’s seniority system. There is a “special circumstances” exception to this rule, where the employer does not maintain a consistent and uniform seniority system, which did not apply. Thus, the employer’s removal of the employee from the light duty position did not violate the ADA. Nor did the employer violate the ADA by not assigning the employee to another light duty position. Under the ADA, an employer may be required to assign an employee to a different position as a reasonable accommodation, but only if there is a vacant position to which to assign the employee. An employer is not obligated to remove other employees from their positions to create an open position for the disabled employee. Because there was no evidence that a vacant position existed at the time the employee was removed from his light duty position, the employer was within its rights to decline to assign the employee to another light duty position.