Supreme Court Lets Stand Ruling on Disabled Employee’s Right to Job

May 28, 2013 by Greg Stohr

The U.S. Supreme Court turned away an appeal by United Airlines that sought to limit a federal law that requires employers to accommodate disabled workers.

The justices today left intact a federal appeals court’s conclusion that an employer generally must offer a vacant position to a newly disabled worker even when a more-qualified applicant wants the job.

United, backed by business groups, said the appeals court ruling will turn the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, into an affirmative action statute by giving those it covers an edge over other job seekers. United, the world’s largest airline, is owned by Chicago-based United Continental Holdings Inc.

The lower court’s reasoning “disregards the unassailable prerogative of employers to select only the best qualified candidates for job vacancies,” business groups including the Washington-based U.S. Chamber of Commerce argued in court papers.

The ADA covers more than 50 million people and entitles disabled workers to “reasonable accommodations” for their physical or mental impairments.

United is fighting a 2009 lawsuit brought by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The agency contends the airline violates the ADA with its procedures for accommodating disabled employees. The high court rebuff means the suit can move ahead.

Rejection Urged

The Obama administration, on behalf of the EEOC, urged the justices to let the Chicago-based appellate panel’s ruling stand.

“The court of appeals’ approach is true to the statutory text and properly balances the remedial goals of the ADA with the legitimate interests of employers,” the administration argued.

The high court said in a 2002 decision that disabled employees generally don’t have the right to bypass a company’s seniority system. United contended that ruling supports its position in the latest case.

“This court’s analysis does not suggest, much less dictate, that an accommodation is ‘reasonable’ where it requires a more-qualified individual to be denied a position,” United argued.

Editors: Laurie Asseo, Ted Bunker

The case is United Airlines v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 12-707.