Special Education

Court Says Seniority Overrides ADA Moves in Most Cases

By Mark Walsh — May 08, 2002 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.”

Uniform Treatment

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


Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Achievement Webinar
Mission Possible: Saving Time While Improving Student Outcomes
Learn how district leaders are maximizing instructional time and finding the best resources for student success through their MTSS framework.
Content provided by Panorama Education
Reading & Literacy K-12 Essentials Forum Writing and the Science of Reading
Join us for this free event as we highlight and discuss the intersection of reading and writing with Education Week reporters and expert guests.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Special Education Supreme Court Seems in Favor of Deaf Student's Right to Sue School District Under the ADA
Miguel Luna Perez was there as the justices weighed issues in his case over his district allegedly failing to provide trained interpreters.
7 min read
Miguel Perez stands outside the Supreme Court after arguments in the case of Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools on Jan. 18, 2023 in Washington, D.C.
Miguel Perez, right, along with lawyer Roman Martinez, stands outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on Wednesday after arguments in his case against his former school district in Sturgis, Mich.
Mark Walsh/Education Week
Special Education A Deaf Student Says His School District Failed Him. The Supreme Court Will Decide
Miguel Luna Perez received inadequate assistance for 12 years, his suit says. The high court will decide if he can pursue money damages.
10 min read
Miguel Perez
Miguel Luna Perez in a 2016 yearbook photo as a senior at Sturgis High School in Michigan. Luna Perez, who is deaf, went on to the Michigan School for the Deaf in a settlement with his district but is seeking to sue under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 for the district's alleged failures to provide him adequate assistance to communicate.
Photo courtesy of Luna Perez family
Special Education 'Better Defined by Their Strengths': 5 Ways to Support Students With Learning Differences
What are effective ways schools can support students with learning differences? Educators on social media weighed in.
3 min read
A diverse group of students wearing book bags and climbing ladders and books to assemble a large puzzle
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Special Education Q&A Why Special Education Research Is So Important Now
The outgoing commissioner of the National Center on Special Education Research outlines the challenges ahead.
5 min read
Illustration of data analysis.
sesame/DigitalVision Vectors