Seniority systems may override employee discrimination laws

In a ruling that disabled professionals in Wisconsin and other states may find interesting, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit decided in favor of United Airlines after the company ceased honoring a disabled employee’s job reassignment. Although the man subsequently brought a discrimination claim against the airline, on Dec. 3, the court ruled that the employer wasn’t bound by the Americans with Disabilities Act to provide a guarantee of reassignment because it had a seniority system in place for determining who should receive jobs.

The lone judge who wrote a dissenting opinion claimed that the company should have made more efforts to find the man a new position following the institution of new rules on job bidding. The deciding majority, however, maintained that even though the airline had accommodated the man’s disability with a special assignment for five years and later modified the rules on its own initiative, these factors did not constitute the kinds of special circumstances that would have required the company to reassign him according to precedents established by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The deciding judge noted that employers aren’t bound to keep job positions that would accommodate the disabled if they have valid business reasons for getting rid of them. He also pointed out that while the man was put on extended illness status after the initial rule change, he failed to pursue accommodations from the company.

Although the ADA created many protections against disability discrimination in the workplace, such laws are open to interpretation. Factors like how discrimination claimants respond to negotiation offers and the justifications their employers offer for their actions may influence judges and officials. An employment law attorney can often be of assistance to a disabled employee in this type of situation.


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