New York Times
Published April 30, 2002
(Used with Permission)
The Supreme Court ruled [this week] in an important disability rights case that an employer is not ordinarily required to distort a valid seniority system in order to accommodate the need of a disabled worker for a transfer to another job.
The 5-to-4 decision was a tentative victory for US Airways, which had invoked its seniority system to deny an injured baggage handler the right to stay in a less physically taxing job in the mailroom, where he had been temporarily assigned but for which he did not have sufficient seniority to remain. The court's opinion today is not likely to be the last word, either in this dispute or in the legal question it addressed.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, ruled that the worker, Robert Barnett, was entitled to a trial on his claim that the airline had violated his rights under the Americans With Disabilities Act. The appeals court said that the existence of a seniority system was merely "a factor" to consider in a case-by-case assessment of whether a proposed accommodation was reasonable.
In a decision vacating that ruling, Justice Stephen G. Breyer said for the majority today that seniority systems were entitled to much greater weight. When disabled employees request new assignments to positions for which seniority would not otherwise entitle them, "it will ordinarily be unreasonable for the assignment to prevail" unless the employee can show some "special circumstance," he said.
But by leaving the door open for employees to show why their needs should prevail in a particular case, the Supreme Court stopped short of adopting the airline's proposed rule, under which a seniority system would always trump a disabled employee's requested accommodation...
…The decision, US Airways v. Barnett, No. 00-1250, was one of the first by the Supreme Court to interpret the concept of "reasonable accommodation," which is central to the Americans With Disabilities Act.
The law prohibits an employer from discriminating against a "qualified individual with a disability," defined as someone who, with "reasonable accommodation," can perform the essential functions of the job in question. But an employer is not required to offer an accommodation that would impose an "undue hardship" on the operation of its business. In this case, US Airways argued that a departure from its ordinary seniority system would work such a hardship, and that consequently Mr. Barnett's requested accommodation of a permanent position in the mailroom was not "reasonable."
To balance the competing concepts of accommodation and seniority, the court today established a process for decision that stopped short of imposing a categorical rule but was more determinate than the case-by-case approach adopted by the Ninth Circuit.
However, while the court established a presumption in favor of seniority systems, it did not make that presumption conclusive. The employee "nonetheless remains free" to show that "special circumstances" make the requested accommodation a reasonable one, Justice Breyer said. His opinion gave two examples: a seniority system in which the employer makes frequent, unilateral changes, leaving employees with reduced expectations that the system will be followed; and a system that already contains so many exceptions that "one further exception is unlikely to matter."
The US Airways seniority system was devised by management, and was not part of a union's collective bargaining agreement. The court drew no direct distinction between the two situations, although the analysis made it somewhat more likely that a collectively bargained seniority system might be less open to challenge because employees can expect that it cannot be changed at the whim of management.
Editor’s Note: Although the railroad industry’s collectively bargained seniority system would seem to always trump disability rights, it is always worthwhile to remember to evaluate each particular situation in terms of economic impact of all those involved. We should always remember that the union movement is a brotherhood. J. Dillon Hoey