Supreme Court Says Employers Need Not Violate Seniority System as ADA Reasonable Accommodation in Most Cases

Wednesday, May 1, 2002
by Jackson Lewis

On April 29, 2002, in a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held the Americans With Disabilities Act ordinarily does not require an employer to violate a seniority based system to transfer a qualified disabled employee to another position as a reasonable accommodation. In US Airways, Inc. v. Barnett U.S., No. 00-1250, the Court held a plaintiff has the burden of proving a requested accommodation is reasonable and when the accommodation is on its face "unreasonable," the employee must establish special circumstances that make the otherwise unreasonable accommodation reasonable.

Facts of the case. The plaintiff, Robert Barnett, was a cargo handler for US Airways. He injured his back while working for US Airways and invoked seniority rights to transfer to a less physically demanding mailroom position. Barnett learned two employees with greater seniority planned to bid on his job. He asked US Airways to make an exception to the seniority system and allow him to remain in the mailroom as an accommodation. US Airways decided not to make an exception to its seniority system and Barnett lost his job.

District Court and Circuit Court decisions. Barnett sued US Airways claiming it violated the Americans With Disabilities Act by refusing to make an exception to its seniority system. US Airways argued the ADA does not require an employer to reassign a disabled employee to a position as a reasonable accommodation when another employee is entitled to hold the position under the employer's bona fide seniority system. The trial court agreed with US Airways and granted its motion for summary judgment. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit disagreed and reversed the trial court's decision.

U.S. Supreme Court decision. The U.S. Supreme Court vacated the Ninth Circuit's opinion and held, in most cases, the ADA does not require an employer to violate a bona fide seniority system as a reasonable accommodation. However, the Court held an employee is free to show special circumstances that would make an exception to a seniority system a reasonable accommodation. For example, the Court stated an employee may be able to show the employer made exceptions to the seniority system. If the employee proves such special circumstances, the employer would then have to defend a failure to accommodate by proving the accommodation posed an undue hardship.

Essentially, the Court's ruling establishes a two step approach to analyzing requests for reasonable accommodation. Employers first have to decide whether a requested accommodation is "reasonable" on its face. If an accommodation is "reasonable," employers must then determine whether providing an accommodation poses an undue hardship. The decision suggests employers that make exceptions to generally established policies may be in a more difficult position to argue that requests to bend those policies as an ADA accommodation are "unreasonable."

Dissenting opinion. In his dissent, Justice Scalia criticized the opinion stating, "the Court's opinion leaves the question whether a seniority system must be disregarded in order to accommodate a disabled employee in a state of uncertainty that can be resolved only through constant litigation." A full analysis of this case and its implications on employment practices will be available shortly at
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