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Seventh Circuit Issues ADA Reassignment Guidance

By Kristofor L. Hanson & Christopher J. Saugstad - Lindner & Marsack, S.C.

November 25, 2019

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently clarified its position concerning reassignment as an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”). Under the ADA, employers have an affirmative duty to reasonably accommodate an employee’s disability. While engaging in the interactive process to find a reasonable accommodation, in situations where an employee is unable to perform the essential functions of his or her job even with reasonable accommodations, employers are required to evaluate reassignment to a vacant position as an accommodation. Previously, in EEOC v. United Airlines, Inc., 693 F.3d 760, 764 (7th Cir. 2012), the Seventh Circuit explained that the ADA requires employers to appoint disabled employees to vacant positions for which the employee is minimally qualified, unless the reassignment would pose an undue hardship to the employer or there is a bona fide seniority system in place. Pursuant to this decision, employers cannot force the disabled employee to go through a competitive process to be placed into a vacant position as a reasonable accommodation.

On November 15, 2019, the Seventh Circuit revisited the issue of reassignment under the ADA in Ford v. Marion Cty. Sheriff's Office, No. 18-3217, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 34072, (7th Cir. Nov. 15, 2019). Ford worked as a deputy at the county sheriff’s office until her hand was seriously injured in a car accident while on duty. Ford was reassigned to light duty for about a year until she accepted a position as a jail visitation clerk; Ford was given the option to accept the visitation position, resign, or be fired. After Ford’s reassignment, she alleged she suffered disability-based harassment by co-workers, refusals to accommodate her scheduling needs, and several discriminatory promotion denials. Ford brought an action against Marion County for violations under the ADA.

The Seventh Circuit found the district court properly granted summary judgment on Ford’s claim regarding reassignment to the visitation clerk position and explained a “demotion can be a reasonable accommodation when the employer cannot accommodate the disabled employee in her current or prior jobs or an equivalent position.” The Court pointed out EEOC guidance regarding reassignment and demotion states: "An employer may reassign an individual to a lower graded position if ... there are no vacant equivalent positions for which the individual is qualified with or without reasonable accommodation."

The Court noted that if there had been a vacant position that more closely matched Ford’s previous position, under the ADA, Marion County would have been obligated to reassign her to that position.

Significantly, the Seventh Circuit suggested that Marion County, as the employer, had an obligation to “to canvass available positions and, if a vacant job existed that Ford was qualified to perform with or without reasonable accommodations, to offer it to her.” Employers should review their current process regarding reassignment as a potential reasonable accommodation. Once reassignment becomes a potential accommodation, employers should actively canvas their current vacancies in relation to the disabled employee’s qualifications. If there is a match, the employee should be offered the job. Merely inviting employees, without any employer assistance, to apply for any vacant positions for which they think they may be qualified is insufficient.

Lindner & Marsack, S.C. represents employers in all areas of labor and employment law. If you have any questions about the ADA, reasonable accommodation and the possibility of reassignment, or any other labor or employment issue involving your business, please contact us at any time.

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