Special Education

Court Ponders ‘Reasonable Accommodations’ Under ADA

By Mark Walsh — December 12, 2001 3 min read
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The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 continues to funnel a steady flow of appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court. Last week, the justices heard oral arguments in a case that will help define what constitutes a “reasonable accommodation” for workers with disabilities.

Meanwhile, the court declined to hear an Arizona school district’s appeal of a lower-court ruling in favor of a school groundskeeper who claimed she lost her job in violation of the ADA because a leg injury limited her abilities.

In the case argued last week, the court must decide if US Airways violated the ADA when it refused to keep employee Robert Barnett in a mailroom job during a 1992 round of layoffs. Mr. Barnett had injured his back in 1990 while working as a cargo handler and transferred to the less demanding mailroom position.

The airline has a seniority system for job assignments, and when the layoffs came, it told Mr. Barnett he would have to give up the mailroom post to a more senior employee. Because under the seniority system he would have been bumped back to a cargo job he could not perform, Mr. Barnett was placed on job injury leave with only limited pay.

He sued US Airways under the ADA, arguing the company should have made a reasonable accommodation for him by making an exception to its seniority system.

Whether the disability-rights law requires such accommodations is an important question for employers that use a seniority system, including school districts.

A federal district court ruled in favor of US Airways, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, ruled that “reassignment is a reasonable accommodation to which disabled employees should have priority over nondisabled employees.”

During the Dec. 4 oral arguments in US Airways Inc. v. Barnett (Case No. 00-1250), the lawyer for the airline argued that the ADA does not demand that employees with disabilities be given preferential treatment in employment decisions.

“The act simply does not require an employer ... to set aside the normal operation of a bona fide seniority system,” said the lawyer, Walter E. Dellinger III.

Claudia Center, the lawyer for Mr. Barnett, argued that a central goal of the ADA was to require employers to make reasonable accommodations that help keep workers who have disabilities.

“Mr. Barnett’s goal is to get a job he can do within his abilities,” she said.

But several justices suggested that the airline had a reasonable concern in maintaining a fair system of employment.

“Life is very difficult in a big company when you lay off 7,000 employees,” said Justice Stephen G. Breyer. “The remaining employees have to think there is a fair system remaining.”

Justice Clarence Thomas asked Ms. Center whether Mr. Barnett could fairly be “bumped by a more severely handicapped person.”

No, she said, because “it would be unreasonable to disrupt another disabled employee’s effective accommodation.”

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said the crux of the case seemed to be that “we need to decide what ‘reasonable accommodation’ really means.”

A ruling is expected by summer.

Groundskeeper’s Case

On Dec. 3, the court declined without comment to hear the appeal in another ADA case, Paradise Valley Unified School District v. Johnson (No. 01-452).

The case involves Linda Johnson, who was a groundskeeper in the 32,000-student Arizona district when her left leg was crushed by a motorized cart. After seven months of recuperation, Ms. Johnson’s doctor gave her a limited medical release, or clearance to return to work, and she sought some other job at the district that would not involve prolonged standing or walking.

An administrator told Ms. Johnson that the district did not accept limited medical releases, and that she would be dismissed if she could not get full clearance. Ms. Johnson eventually resigned. After later getting full medical clearance, she applied for 13 open jobs with the district, but she wasn’t hired.

Ms. Johnson sued alleging discrimination under the ADA. A jury ruled in her favor, and awarded her $237,000 in damages. But the federal trial judge set the verdict aside and ruled for the district.

A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit court ordered the jury verdict reinstated. Among other reasons, the court said evidence showed the district had enforced a policy of not accepting partial medical releases, even though such policies discriminate against “qualified individuals with disabilities.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 12, 2001 edition of Education Week as Court Ponders ‘Reasonable Accommodations’ Under ADA

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