Paul Siegel explains the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the Americans With Disabilities Act does not require an employer to violate a seniority-based system to transfer a disabled employee to another position as a reasonable accommodation.
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 U.S. 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.
The plaintiff, Robert Barnett, was a cargo handler for U.S. Airways. He injured his back while working for U.S. Airways and invoked seniority rights to transfer to a less physically demanding mailroom position. Mr. Barnett learned two employees with greater seniority planned to bid on his job. He asked U.S. Airways to make an exception to the seniority system and allow him to remain in the mailroom as an accommodation. U.S. Airways decided not to make an exception to its seniority system, and Mr. Barnett lost his job.
Mr. Barnett sued U.S. Airways claiming it violated the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) by refusing to make an exception to its seniority system. U.S. 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 U.S. 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.
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."
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."