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Seniority Beats Disability in United Airlines ADA Suit

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

What happens when a seniority-based job assignment system comes into conflict with the needs of disabled workers? Seniority wins, at least in a recent ADA lawsuit against United Airlines.

In that suit, a disabled United ramp serviceman failed to show "special circumstances" that would require United to make an exception to its seniority system, the Seventh Circuit ruled.

Seniority-Based Bidding and Bad Backs

Michael Dunderdale began working as a ramp serviceman for United in 1997. Those are the people you see loading and unloading luggage on the tarmac, for example. It's a physical job, requiring "pulling, pushing ... walking, standing, bending, kneeling, stooping" and a whole lot of lifting, according to the job description.

After a few years as a ramp serviceman, Dunderdale injured his back on the job -- twice. Since his injuries prevented him from working as a ramp serviceman, United moved him to a product sorting position.

Under United's collective bargaining agreement, many ramp serviceman and product sorting positions are assigned through a seniority-based bidding system. Employees bid for placement at different work areas throughout United. Those placements are then distributed according to seniority. Except for the matrix position in product sorting, to which Dunderdale was assigned.

Until 2011, that job was reserved for ramp servicemen with permanent work restrictions. When it was converted to a seniority-based bidding placement, Dunderdale was informed that he was too low on the totem to qualify. The airline declined to appoint Dunderdale to a no-bid position as a "reasonable accommodation" under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

No Special Circumstances Shown

Dunderdale sued, arguing that United illegally refused to accommodate him. The airline should have allowed him to retain his position or offered him another, no-bid job, he argued. Both the district court and the Seventh Circuit disagreed.

Reasonable accommodations must be reasonable. As the Seventh Circuit noted, the Supreme Court ruled in 2002's US Airways v. Barnett that "it is unreasonable to assign an employee to a position as an accommodation if doing so would violate the employer's seniority system." To get around that limit on accommodations, an employee must show that "special circumstances" apply.

First, Dunderdale argued that, since the positions were previously non-seniority, it would be reasonable to require United to "maintain the status quo." He also maintained that United's change was voluntary, unforced by employee grievances. Neither of Dunderdale's proposed special circumstances were up to snuff, according to Judge William J. Bauer. On the first count, United applied its policies consistently and uniformly, all that is needed to avoid a special circumstance. On the second, the court said it would not "second-guess United's decision merely because Dunderdale believes United should have waited for a formal grievance filing."

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