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United Airlines pays $1 million to settle disabled-workers suit

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In a case the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider, United Airlines Inc. has reached a $1 million settlement with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in a case that involved the issue of accommodating disabled employees.

In 2013, the Supreme Court refused to reconsider a 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in EEOC v. United Airlines Inc., which held that reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act may require employers to reassign employees to a vacant position when the employee cannot be accommodated in his or her current position.

The EEOC had charged that by requiring employees with disabilities to compete for vacant positions for which they were qualified, and which they needed to continue working, the company's practice frequently prevented disabled workers from continuing employment with the airline.

The EEOC said in a statement last week that the airline will pay $1 million to a small class of former United employees with disabilities and make changes nationally, under a consent decree.

United will revise its ADA reassignment policy, train employees with supervisory or human resource responsibilities regarding the policy changes, and provide reports to the EEOC regarding disabled employees who were denied a position as part of the ADA reassignment process, the EEOC said.

In its September 2012 ruling, the Chicago-based 7th Circuit reversed a lower court's dismissal of the EEOC's disability discrimination lawsuit and found that “the ADA does indeed mandate 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 the employer.”

EEOC Regional Attorney for the San Francisco District William Tamayo said in a statement, “If a disability prevents an employee from returning to work in his or her current position, an employer must consider reassignment. As the Seventh Circuit's decision highlights, requiring the employee to compete for positions falls short of the ADA's requirements. Employers should take note: When all other accommodations fail, consider whether your employee can fill a vacant position for which he or she is qualified.”

A United Airlines spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment.