7th Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment for Employer in ADA Reasonable Accommodation Action

On June 26, 2019, the 7th Circuit affirmed the district court's order granting the defendant-employer's motion for summary judgment in a lawsuit in which the plaintiff alleged that her former employer violated the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") by rescinding her long-standing work-from-home reasonable accommodation, and requiring her to relocate to another state to work face-to-face.  Bilinsky v. American Airlines, Inc., No. 18-3107 (7th Circuit June 26, 2019).  The plaintiff was employed by the defendant for more than two decades.  After she contracted multiple sclerosis ("MS"), the defendant provided her with a work-from-home arrangement as a reasonable accommodation for her disability.  The accommodation permitted the plaintiff to perform her administrative job from her home in Chicago, even though her colleagues operated out of the company headquarters in Dallas.  The defendant claimed that after a major corporate merger with another airline, it restructured its operations and informally "re-purposed" the plaintiff's department.

The defendant determined that the new departmental structure required the in-person involvement of its employees.  Thus, the defendant rescinded the plaintiff's work-from-home accommodation, and demanded that she relocate to Texas to work on-site face-to-face.  After negotiations broke down, the defendant terminated the plaintiff's employment.  She filed an ADA lawsuit in the federal district court in Chicago alleging: (1) that the defendant failed to accommodate her disability under the ADA; (2) that the defendant retaliated against her for insisting on an accommodation (by denying her another position); and (3) that the defendant failed to accommodate her disability under the Illinois Human Rights Act ("IHRA").  The ADA prohibits a covered employer from discriminating against a qualified individual on the basis of disability.  Disability discrimination includes employment termination and failure to reasonably accommodate a qualified employee's disability, unless the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the business operations of the employer.  A qualified individual with a disability is one who can perform the essential functions of her job position with or without reasonable accommodation.  To determine whether a job function is essential, court consider the employer's judgment, written job descriptions, the amount of time spent on the function, and the experience of those who previously held or currently hold the employment position.  The district court concluded that in light of the changes in the plaintiff's job duties, which, according to the defendant, required her physical presence on-site to interact with her co-workers face-to-face, she was no longer a qualified individual under the ADA.  An employee is not a qualified individual with a disability and, therefore, has no valid claim under the ADA if she, even with a reasonable accommodation, still cannot perform her essential job functions.

Both parties agreed that the plaintiff's MS is a qualifying disability under the ADA.  The defendant also conceded that she was qualified to perform her job with her accommodation prior to the merger.  The defendant argued that the merger fundamentally changed the nature of the plaintiff's position, such that her physical presence on-site became an essential job function.  Because she could not perform that function from home in Chicago, and because she was unable to relocate to Dallas (on account of the adverse effect of the hot weather on her MS), she was not qualified for her "transformed" position.  Although she was once able to perform her essential job functions with a reasonable accommodation, those functions changed upon restructuring after the merger.  Under the ADA, an employer is not required to create a new position for a disabled employee, change the essential functions of her employment position, or maintain an existing position or structure that, for legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons, it no longer believes is appropriate.  

It should be noted, however, that the ADA's purpose is to eliminate employment discrimination against disabled employees.  The ADA does not provide employers with unfettered discretion to decide what is reasonable.  An employer may not rescind an existing reasonable accommodation, unless there is a material change in circumstances that warrants it.  In this case, the merger did so by expanding her job responsibilities to include on-site interaction with her unit.  But whether a work-from-home accommodation is reasonable depends on the specific employment context, and will vary from case-to-case.  Although many courts considered regular work-site attendance as an essential job function, contemporary communication technology may influence the development of ADA law in this regard.  Indeed, work-from-home arrangements (and work-from-home jobs) are ordinary today.  ADA litigants and courts in ADA lawsuits should assess the reasonableness of ADA accommodations in view of current technological capabilities.