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Bilinsky v. American Airlines, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

June 26, 2019

Kimberly Bilinsky, Plaintiff-Appellant,
American Airlines, Inc., Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued March 27, 2019

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 16 C 4253 - Virginia M. Kendall, Judge.

          Before Easterbrook, Kanne, and Hamilton, Circuit Judges

          Kanne, Circuit Judge.

         American Airlines employed Kimberly Bilinsky for more than two decades. That employment continued without issue after Bilinsky contracted multiple sclerosis ("MS") in the late 1990s. American provided a "Work from Home Arrangement" ("WFHA"), which permitted Bilinsky to do her job from her home in Chicago, even though her colleagues operated out of the company headquarters in Dallas. But after a 2013 merger, American restructured its operations and informally repurposed Bilinsky's department. The executives determined that the new duties required the in-person involvement of the employees, so the company rescinded the arrangement and demanded that Bilinsky relocate to Texas to work face-to-face. Once negotiations collapsed, American terminated Bilinsky.

         This lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") followed. 42 U.S.C. § 12111 et seq. The district court granted summary judgment to American, finding that Bilinsky was no longer qualified for the position in light of the changes in her responsibilities. Because Bilinsky's evidence does not counter that assertion, we affirm.

         I. Background

         American hired Bilinsky in 1991. She served in several positions, taking on a role in 2007 as a communications specialist in the Flight Service Department, located in Dallas at the company's headquarters. But according to Bilinsky's medical records, excessive heat aggravates her MS symptoms and causes her discomfort and reduced functioning. Under the WFHA, American permitted Bilinsky to work from Chicago, where hot weather is less of a concern. She usually traveled to Dallas one day per week to meet with colleagues and perform tasks that required a physical presence.

         Bilinsky's duties included participating in conference calls, administering an internal website used to distribute information to flight attendants, publishing articles intended for consumption by flight attendants, producing e-mail communications to employees, and preparing remarks for her boss's weekly internal video announcement. The position had no formal, written job description. Bilinsky performed successfully for several years, and there is no record of complaints or disciplinary action against her.

         American merged with U.S. Airways in 2013. The resulting company (still American Airlines) had to integrate the operations of both airlines into a single entity with common policies and procedures. Hector Adler, the Flight Service Department's Vice President at that time, testified that "[i]t was a very extensive and significant task that involved nearly every person in the department." As the process dragged on, Adler felt that existing work arrangements were insufficient to meet the demand. The department expanded its workload, transitioning from primarily producing written communications to putting on live events and performing crisis management functions. The additional work caused the Dallas employees to feel "spread very thin at times."

         Under the circumstances, Adler unilaterally decided to require all employees to be physically present at headquarters. This decision affected two employees other than Bilinsky: one relocated to Dallas, but the other refused and was terminated. Upon learning of the impending changes, Bilinsky spoke with her immediate supervisor, Cathy Scheu, on May 20, 2014. Bilinsky emphasized that her WFHA was a necessary accommodation for her disability and that relocating to Dallas was not an option. Scheu communicated the information to Adler, but Adler indicated his intent to deny the request.

         Later that year, Scheu and Human Resources representative Rhonda Nicol-Perrin approached Bilinsky to determine whether the company could make alternative accommodations that would permit Bilinsky to relocate. Bilinsky responded that the company would need to provide "a tube of air conditioning around [her] at all times." She stressed that working at American's Dallas office was not a problem, but living in a hot part of the country year-round and trying to engage in activities outside the office would create a concern.

         Scheu and Nicol-Perrin then looked for other positions for Bilinsky. They identified a few jobs in Chicago, but Bilinsky was either not qualified for them or not interested in them. Bilinsky separately applied for a technical writer job in the Flight Service Department. That job was also located in Dallas, but the incumbent had worked remotely. Although the interviewer indicated that she wanted to hire Bilinsky for the position, the company declined to allow Bilinsky to work remotely in the new capacity. The position was vacant precisely because the incumbent had been working from home and was affected by the same policy shift that affected Bilinsky.

         Throughout 2014 and early 2015, Bilinsky continued to work as before. Linda Carlson took over as Bilinsky's immediate supervisor after Scheu was promoted. Carlson expressed no complaints about Bilinsky's performance. The issue came to a head in February 2015, when the department helped to produce the American Airlines Leadership Conference in Dallas. Bilinsky was not asked to attend the event or assist with preparations, but Carlson otherwise called upon "anybody who was a warm body" to help with the event. Carlson acknowledged that "if you asked [Bilinsky] to pick up the slack or to do a project, she was always willing." But she immediately qualified that statement: "She just wasn't able to do things that you needed to do to support an event. You can't drive to the hotel that's in Dallas if you're in Chicago." One month after the conference, Scheu and Nicol-Perrin informed Bilinsky that she would need to complete her relocation or leave her job. On May 1, 2015, American terminated Bilinsky's employment.

         Bilinsky filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and received a "right to sue" letter. She then filed this suit in the federal district court in Chicago. Her complaint alleged three counts: (I) that American failed to accommodate her disability under the ADA; (II) that American retaliated against her for insisting on an accommodation by denying her the technical writer position; and (III) that American failed to accommodate her disability under the Illinois Human Rights Act ("IHRA"), 775Ill.Comp.Stat. 5 § 1-102 et seq. After discovery, the district court granted summary judgment to American on all three counts, finding that Bilinsky was not a "qualified individual" for the position in light ...

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