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When Essential Job Functions Changes, So Can the Accommodation

Kimberly Bilinsky was a communications specialist with American Airlines for whom she worked for over 15 years. While employed, she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Although her position reported to the headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas, Bilinsky and her manager reached an accommodation where she would work from her home in Illinois.

In December 2013, American Airlines merged with US Airways. The communications work was changed following this merger to one “with a higher degree of in-person engagement.” Thus, all employees based in Fort Worth were required to work in Texas. Bilinsky’s MS made Texas a challenging place to live because the climate aggravated her MS. She asked to be able to continue her accommodation of working from her Illinois home. American denied her request but asked what other accommodation could be made for her. She responded that no other accommodation would be enough. She did apply for two other positions within the company but was not selected. She was terminated and sued for violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

In order to qualify for protection under the ADA, the individual must be qualified for the position and that means that he/she/they can perform the essential functions of the position. Here, American was arguing that the essential functions of Bilinsky’s position had changed such that now her physical presence was required in Texas. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals determined that her position had in fact evolved following the merger to include more “team-centered crisis management activities, involving frequent face-to-face meetings with team members on short notice to coordinate work.” These changes applied to everyone in Bilinsky’s department. The court stressed that the holding was limited to the particular facts of this case; the major merger was a “unique intervening event” explaining the change in functions.