Medically disqualified railroaders often will ask, "Why can't I get a different job on the railroad using the Americans With Disabilities Act?"
I hope this article will provide some insight into the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and its applicability to a railroader in the workplace.
Most people know that the ADA was passed to prohibit discrimination against individuals with certain disabilities. Under the Act, prohibited discrimination includes "not making reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an [employee] with a disability" unless the employer "can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of [its] business."
Over the years, a number of cases have arisen when a disabled employee seeks to hold a position under the ADA, although another employee is entitled to hold the same position under the employer's seniority system.
In a recent situation, a yardmaster attempted to modify his schedule to work only during daylight hours due to his doctor's instructions in order to care for his epilepsy. Allowing the individual to work during daylight hours would require the employer to bump a more senior employee, circumventing the roster.
Realizing that various courts have arrived at differing conclusions in analyzing whether or not the ADA can trump seniority systems, the Supreme Court definitively ruled on this issue this year in the case of Robert Barnett v. U.S. Airways. Robert Barnett was a cargo handler for U.S. Airways when he injured his back on the job. He then transferred to a job in the mailroom, which would be much easier on his back. Later, this position became open to seniority based bidding under the U.S. Airways seniority system and employees senior to Mr. Barnett were allowed to bid on the job. Mr. Barnett requested that the airline keep him in the mailroom as an accommodation under the ADA. U.S. Airways refused to do this.
After Mr. Barnett lost his job, he filed suit under the ADA, claiming that the airlines did not provide him with a reasonable accommodation for his disability. The airline claimed that it was never "a reasonable accommodation" to accommodate an individual when it violated a seniority system's rules. On the other hand, Mr. Barnett argued that the only issue with respect to a reasonable accommodation is whether the accommodation would meet the individual's disability related needs. While the Supreme Court indicated that both of these positions were wrong, it did indicate that in the vast majority of cases, absent a few specific exceptions, allowing an individual to hold a job that would violate a seniority system's rules is not a "reasonable accommodation."In other words, the ADA cannot "trump" a seniority system most of the time.
The Supreme Court stated that the "typical seniority system provides important employee benefits by creating and fulfilling employee expectations of fair, uniform treatment. These benefits include 'job security and an opportunity for steady and predictable advancement based on objective standards."
The court reasoned that there may be exceptions or special circumstances where, although a seniority system is in place, allowing the employee to fall outside the seniority system's requirements would be reasonable. Examples that the court used were when the employer fairly frequently makes unilateral changes in the seniority system, therefore reducing employee expectations that the system will be followed or that the system has a number of exceptions so that an additional exception would be insignificant. However, the burden of proof on this issue is to show that making the exception would not pose an undue hardship on the railroad so as to make it an unreasonable accommodation.
The court, however, was not unanimous on this point, and Justice Thomas and Justice Scalia filed a dissenting opinion in which they put forth their belief that the ADA requires "the suspension (within reason) of those employment rules and practices that the employee’s disability prevents him from observing."