It’s been awhile since we’ve addressed attempts at bringing class action disability claims (September 27, 2013 and March 6, 2014), but as we’ve noted in the past, they make poor candidates for class action treatment. Disability claims almost by definition involve more, and more highly individualized, inquiries and quickly run into trouble satisfying Rule 23’s requirements.
A case from the Northern District of Illinois well illustrates this point. In DeFreitas v. United Airlines, Case No. 19 C 3397 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 11, 2020), the plaintiff was an airline maintenance worker who claimed that he was suffering from a degenerative and painful cervical disc disease. He contended that he sought sedentary work as an accommodation, but despite multiple requests was never hired for any such positions within the airline. He ended up taking a position with a delivery service that better accommodated his condition.
The plaintiff then brought claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act and sought to represent a class of current and former employees with similar claims. He proposed a rather broad class of current and former employees of the airline “who were employed at any time between January 25, 2014 through the date that class certification is granted and who had/has a physical or mental impairment and who were/are unable to continue working in his/her regular position and who applied for and were/are not selected for a vacant available position at [the airline] and who either (1) were identified by [the airline] as meeting minimum requirements for one of the available positions at [the airline]; and/or (2) secured an equivalent position at another company.” What’s wrong with this picture?
It turns out a lot. The defendant moved to strike the class claims because the class could not be ascertained. The district court had little trouble granting the motion, finding that each individual claim required consideration of factors such as whether the employee had a covered disability; whether the employee was perceived as disabled, whether the individual was actually qualified for an available job, whether the employee could do that job with or without a reasonable accommodation, the type of necessary accommodation, potential undue hardship, and whether the parties had engaged in the interactive process. As the court found, disability claims are rarely if ever certified as a class absent something akin to an illegal company-wide policy governing the placement of disabled employees. The court found further problems with the plaintiff’s proposed definition as it also contained terms that raised questions such as which positions were equivalent, how that could be determined on a class-wide basis, the essential functions of such positions etc. It therefore granted the motion to strike.
As noted above, disability discrimination claims don’t easily lend themselves to class action treatment. The plaintiff here also likely did himself no favors with such an unwieldly definition. Still, the DeFreitas case does serve as a warning that employers adopting across-the-board policies for handling requests for disability accommodations to be scrupulous in ensuring that those policies are lawful, at the risk of inviting a class.
The bottom line: Only in rare cases will a disability discrimination claim be subject to class action treatment.