A Chicago federal judge has clipped the wings of a putative class action against United Airlines, which alleged disabled workers were not allowed to take less demanding jobs, saying if such workers have a case, they must pursue their cases individually, not as a class, because the questions that must be addressed are too diverse.
The ruling was set down Feb. 11 by Judge Harry Leinenweber, of U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. His decision favored the Chicago-based United Airlines in a suit brought in May 2019 by Jose De Freitas.
De Freitas said he was an aircraft technician for United, but developed neck pain that prevented him from continuing in that job. However, he said he could continue with the airline in a "sedentary" job, but applied for such jobs without success. He then obtained a job with Federal Express as an aircraft maintenance advisor, which he claimed is similar to the desk-bound jobs for which he unsuccessfully applied at United.
De Freitas sought a class action on behalf of himself and other United employees, who, because of physical or mental impairment, could not perform their jobs. To be part of the class, these workers also needed to have been unable to secure a less demanding job with the airline, or were able to land a less demanding job with another employer. Such workers had to have been employed by United at any time since Jan. 25, 2014.
De Freitas alleged the company violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by failing to provide reasonable accommodations to impaired workers.
Leinenweber agreed with United's motion to deny class action status to the suit, noting the federal appeals court in Chicago has "stated that the question of a disability is 'an individualized one, and must be determined on a case-by-case basis.'"
Leinenweber went on to observe there were a multitude of questions De Freitas has to answer before a class action can proceed, but yet the judge doubts De Freitas can collectively answer them.
"The Court can conceive of no way such questions can be answered on a classwide basis," Leinenweber said.
As examples, Leinenweber said it was necessary for De Freitas to resolve whether United recognized impaired workers as disabled; whether United jobs were available for which these workers were qualified; and whether United and these workers talked about the workers' need for accommodation. In addition, the judge said, it must be determined whether these workers' claimed disabilities qualified as disabilities under the ADA.
Leinenweber ruled any worker cases must go forward individually. The judge pointed out separate suits will not burden plaintiffs.
"A successful ADA plaintiff is entitled to back pay and attorneys’ fees, which is usually sufficient incentive to ensure access to the courts. Thus, it is not an imposition to require an employee who believes he has been discriminated against in violation of the ADA to maintain his own case," Leinenweber said.
De Freitas has been represented by the Chicago firm of Waskowski Johnson Yohalem LLP and Skokie lawyer Michael L. Fradin.
United is represented by the Chicago firm of Littler Mendelson P.C.