An employer’s seniority system cannot ordinarily be trumped by a disabled worker seeking an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week.
The 5-4 ruling on April 29 in U.S. Airways Inc. v. Barnett (Case No. 00-1250) marks the latest instance in which the justices have scaled back the reach of the 1990 law. But while the splintered decision is at first glance a victory for employers, including school districts, disability-rights advocates also had reason to be pleased.
The court rejected an interpretation adopted in several federal circuit courts that a seniority system would in all cases take precedence over an employee’s bid for an accommodation under the ADA.
“In our view, the seniority system will prevail in the run of cases,” said the majority opinion by Justice Stephen G. Breyer. But an employee with a disability “remains free to present evidence of special circumstances” that could lead to an exception, he added.
Justice Breyer was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Anthony M. Kennedy.
The four justices who dissented did so from two entirely different perspectives. Justice Antonin Scalia, in a dissent joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, suggested the ADA does not mandate any exceptions to a seniority system.
Justice David H. Souter, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, went in the opposite direction, saying that “nothing in the ADA insulates seniority rules from the ‘reasonable accommodation’ requirement.”
The case involved Robert Barnett, a US Airways employee who injured his back in 1990 while working as a cargo handler and transferred to a less demanding mailroom position.
The airline has a seniority system for job assignments, and when a 1992 round of layoffs came, the company 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.
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 in 2000 that “reassignment is a reasonable accommodation to which disabled employees should have priority over nondisabled employees.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling rejects that view. Justice Breyer said that requiring an exception to a seniority system for a disabled worker would not ordinarily be reasonable to the employer.
“The typical seniority system provides important employee benefits by creating, and fulfilling, employee expectations of fair, uniform treatment,” Justice Breyer said.
But an employee with a disability could win a reasonable accommodation if the employer, for example, made such frequent exceptions to the seniority system that “one further exception is unlikely to matter,” Justice Breyer wrote.
A version of this article appeared in the May 08, 2002 edition of Education Week as Court Says Seniority Overrides ADA Moves in Most Cases