CHICAGO -- A federal appeals panel has come down on the side of American Airlines in a suit filed by a former employee who alleged the airline violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when it ended the accommodations that made it possible for her to do her job at home.
According to court documents, Kimberly Bilinsky worked at American for more than 20 years, starting in 1991. In the late 1990s, the suit says, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Because her condition is aggravated by heat, American permitted Bilinsky to work from her Chicago home, although the rest of her department was based in Dallas. Court documents note Bilinsky traveled to Dallas once a week to meet with her colleagues and perform tasks that required face-to-face interaction.
In 2013, American merged with US Airways. As the operations of the two airlines slowly merged, the function of Bilinsky’s department began to change. Instead of focusing only on internal communications, the department became responsible for event coordination and crisis communications, roles that required more in-person contact, court documents said. American made a policy change to no longer allow any employees to work remotely. According to the documents, the company tried to find Bilinsky a Chicago-based job but was unable to find one that met Bilinsky’s qualifications and interest.
Bilinsky was fired in 2015 after refusing to relocate. She sued the company for failing to accommodate her disability. The district court granted summary judgment to American on grounds that because Bilinsky’s job had changed to require Dallas residency, she was no longer qualified and was therefore, not protected, under the law.
In her appeal, Bilinsky pointed to her two decades of successful employment with the airline, most of it working from home. She had never been disciplined or received an unsatisfactory review, according to court documents, and her supervisor had testified that she was “always willing” to take on any assignments she received.
Seventh Circuit Judge Michael S. Kanne wrote the majority opinion with the agreement of Judge Frank H. Easterbrook.
“American concedes that Bilinsky was qualified to do the job with her accommodation prior to the 2013 merger,” Kanne wrote. “But it argues that the merger fundamentally changed the position’s nature and that consistent, physical presence on site became an essential function of the position at some point after 2013. Because Bilinsky could not perform that function from her home in Chicago, and because she was unable to relocate to establish a physical presence, American contends that she was not qualified for the transformed position.”
The majority conceded the airline’s case is not black-and-white, as Bilinsky never had a written job description, so there is a lack of hard evidence of her change in duties. Nonetheless, Kanne wrote, Bilinsky’s co-workers testified that she was unable to help the department meet its new expectations.
In a dissenting opinion, Judge David Hamilton agreed with most of the majority’s opinion, but disagreed with the bottom line – that the district court was correct to award summary judgment.
“Whether working five days a week in American Airlines’ Dallas headquarters was an ‘essential function’ of plaintiff Kimberly Bilinsky’s job may well present a close question for a jury,” he wrote. “It is not a close call on summary judgment. We should … let a jury decide the issue.”
Bilinsky worked from home for 15 months after the merger and continued to receive positive evaluations and no criticism, Hamilton wrote. Without a written job description, he said, there is no evidence that working in Dallas is an “essential function” of the job, only that it is management’s preference, which is not protected under the ADA.
The only evidence American presented that Bilinsky was unable to meet the new requirements of her job was her inability to help the department plan and execute a conference – though she had never been asked to help with the event, Hamilton said.
“On summary judgment, it is not our job to decide which party’s evidence is more persuasive,” Hamilton wrote. “A jury should weigh the evidence and determine whether working from Dallas five days a week was actually an essential function of Bilinsky’s job after the merger.”