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An Accommodation May No Longer Be Reasonable If The Job Changes

Published by on August 22, 2019

The Seventh Circuit held that a previously granted accommodation prevented an employee from performing an essential function of her job after her job duties changed. Accordingly, the employee was no longer qualified for her job.

In Bilinsky v. American Airlines, the Plaintiff-employee worked for American Airlines for more than two decades, and the employment continued after the Plaintiff was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). In 2007, she began a role as a communications specialist located in America’s headquarters in Dallas, but because excessive heat aggravated her MS symptoms, Plaintiff was permitted to work from the cooler city of Chicago and traveled to Dallas one day per week.

In 2013, American Airlines merged with US Airways, leading to a restructuring of Plaintiff’s department. It was decided that all employees in the department would be required to be physically present at the Dallas headquarters. Plaintiff’s supervisor and HR discussed with Plaintiff whether there were alternative accommodations that would permit her to relocate to Dallas after she insisted that relocating to Dallas was not an option. After no alternate accommodation could be found, the Plaintiff’s supervisor and HR assisted the Plaintiff in looking for other positions with the Company, but she was either not qualified or not interested in the open positions in Chicago.

For about the next year and a half, Plaintiff continued to work from Chicago and did not receive any complaints about her performance. After she was not present to assist in a leadership conference the department produced in Dallas due to her location, however, she was told she needed to relocate or would be terminated. Following her termination, the Plaintiff filed suit alleging American failed to accommodate her under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the corresponding state law. The district court found she was no longer qualified under the ADA to perform the essential functions of her position following the change in her job duties, and therefore, was ineligible for an accommodation.

On appeal, Plaintiff argued that she had been able to perform her job successfully for years (including after the merger) and her termination resulted only after a change in her supervisor’s preferences about working arrangements. American argued her job evolved to focus on team centered activities which required face-to-face meetings. A split Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment and found that Plaintiff was not qualified for her restructured role as the accommodation of working from home prevented her from performing an essential function of this new role perpetrated by the merger—physical presence in the office.

Conversely, the dissent believed Plaintiff had raised a fact issue as to whether physical presence was an essential function of the job. The dissent focused on the fact that her job had no written job description and noted that courts should not take an employer’s claims about what functions of a position are essential at face value.

Welter Insight

The Seventh Circuit’s holding is a helpful example to employers of when a previously reasonable accommodation is no longer reasonable due to a change in the employee’s underlying job. The opinion, however, also includes important warnings to employers. First, the Court cautioned that the holding was limited to the unique facts of the case. Therefore, employers should still analyze accommodations on a case-by-case basis and engage employees in the interactive process when they believe an accommodation is no longer reasonable or effective.

Additionally, as the dissent’s focus on the lack of a job description for the position at issue demonstrates, employers should strive to maintain job descriptions and ensure that these descriptions are updated to reflect the current realities of the position.

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