American Airlines and its largest regional affiliate, Envoy Air, recently agreed to settle a lawsuit that accused the airlines of denying accommodations to disabled workers. American and Envoy agreed to pay $9.8 million to resolve claims that they didn’t allow disabled workers to return to their jobs or transfer into open positions when they had restrictions on tasks they could perform.

A spokesperson for the airlines said the companies changed accommodations policies after American purchased Envoy two years ago. “We (recognize) that some of our policies and procedures could do more to foster the equitable and safe environment we want,” the spokesperson said.

An employment law attorney writing for Workforce said that the settlement leaves the path forward for employers uncertain. He urges companies to tread carefully as they weigh their options regarding the return to work of disabled employees.

He notes that companies have three choices:

  1. Hire the most qualified person for the open position, even if that means denying the job to a less-qualified (though still qualified), disabled employee.
  2. Automatically hire a qualified disabled employee, even if a more qualified applicant is available.
  3. Give priority consideration for the open position to the disabled, qualified employee.

The attorney stresses, however, “that this issue remains unsettled.” It is possible, he said, that a company that declines to hire the best available person (disabled or not) could find itself questioned about that decision as well.

The bottom line, he writes, is that employers who opt to decline an accommodation to a disabled employee by transferring him or her to an open position could be charged with a costly violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.