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The ADA Cannot Force Employers to Violate Their Labor Agreement in the Name of Reasonable Accommodation

On December 4, 2008, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided King v. City of Madison, a case in which an employee sued her employer, claiming that the City failed to accommodate her disability in violation of the Americans with Disability Act (“ADA”) and the Rehabilitation Act. The Court of Appeals held that the City had accommodated King’s alleged disabilities, which included high-risk pregnancy, diabetes, and migraine headaches, because the collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) only permitted an employee to bump the most junior employee in any job classification equal to or lower than her original position. The court found that the City met its obligation to reasonably accommodate King through the CBA and was not required to violate its own collective bargaining agreement by allowing her bumping rights beyond the bargained-for language.

King was employed by the City as a bus driver until she was unable to work due to the combined effects of a high-risk pregnancy, diabetes, and migraine headaches. King requested and was granted an unpaid leave of absence for a six-month period. After King failed to return to her position at the expiration of this leave, King was transferred to disability layoff status for a period of 18 months. After giving birth, and during the duration of her layoff, King was treated for diabetes, headaches, and intermittent dizziness.

After she had been on leave for approximately 14 months, King was cleared to return to work in some capacity, but was prohibited from driving a bus by her physician. Based on her seniority and classification, the only position which she had a right to demand within her bargaining unit was that which she previously held—bus driver. However, she was unable to perform this job due to her medical restrictions. Under the CBA, King had the right to fill any vacant position within her bargaining unit for which she was qualified and retained the right to compete for vacant positions with the City in other bargaining units. King attempted to bump into an “Operations Tech II” position, but she was not eligible for the position because it was in a higher classification range than her previous position. After two years of leave, the City terminated King’s employment, as was allowed under the CBA.
After King filed suit in the Western District of Wisconsin, the court dismissed her case on summary judgment, holding that King: (1) was not a qualified individual with a disability under the ADA because her medical conditions did not substantially limit her in the major life activity of working; (2) the City provided King with a reasonable accommodation; and (3) the City had no obligation to override a CBA in an effort to reasonably accommodate a disabled employee. King appealed this decision to the Seventh Circuit, claiming she was a qualified individual with a disability and that the City failed to reasonably accommodate her.

The Seventh Circuit determined that the City provided King with reasonable accommodation by allowing her bumping rights and the opportunity to apply for other City positions outside of her bargaining unit, as stated in the CBA. The Seventh Circuit found that King was correct in stating that the ADA recognizes reassignment to a vacant position as a possible reasonable accommodation. However, the Seventh Circuit emphasized that “employers are not required to reassign a disabled employee to a position when such a transfer would violate a legitimate, non-discriminatory policy of the employer.” The court specifically held that non-discriminatory hiring and reassignment provisions found in a CBA qualify as such a policy. Furthermore, the court found that the City complied with the CBA and considered King for other vacant positions. However, when the City followed the placement policies in the CBA, it properly determined that King had no right to bump another employee from other available positions within her bargaining unit because she lacked either the seniority or the skills. Thus, the City applied its disability layoff policy in a neutral, non-discriminatory manner and accommodated King to the extent it could without violating the CBA.


Based on the Court’s decision in King v. City of Madison, school district employers are now reassured that they can enforce their legitimate, non-discriminatory contract provisions when determining whether a requested accommodation is reasonable. Simply stated, an employer will not be required to violate or ignore contract language in order to reasonably accommodate an employee, provided that the contract language is not discriminatory.

If you would like further information on the ever-changing requirements of the ADA and how to effectively manage your employment policies, please contact your Davis & Kuelthau, s.c. attorney.