U.S. SUPREME COURT RULES ON REASONABLE ACCOMODATION UNDER ADA
High Court finds that Request for Assignment that Violates Employer-Instituted Seniority System is Generally Unreasonable.
On April 29, 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court further defined the type of employee-requested accommodation that can be considered “reasonable” under the provisions of the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”). In US Airways v. Barnett, an employee injured his back while serving as a cargo handler for U.S. Airways, and he transferred to a less physically demanding mailroom position. The employee’s new position later became open to seniority-based bidding under U.S. Airways’ self-initiated seniority system, and at least two senior employees planned to bid on the job. U.S. Airways refused the employee’s request to accommodate his disability by allowing him to remain in the mailroom, and he lost his job.
After the employee filed suit under the ADA, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals specifically disagreed with U.S. Airways’ argument that the employee’s request was per se unreasonable because altering a seniority system would result in a hardship to both U.S. Airways and its non-disabled employees. Instead, the Ninth Circuit found that the establishment of a seniority system was only one factor in the undue hardship analysis and that a case-by-case fact intensive analysis is required to determine whether any particular assignment would constitute an undue hardship on an employer.
In examining this issue, the U.S. Supreme Court first noted that typical seniority systems provide important employee benefits “by creating, and fulfilling employee expectations of fair uniform treatment”. Building on this rationale, the Court determined that the existence of a seniority system creates a rebuttable presumption that a disabled employee’s request to violate the system is unreasonable under the ADA. However, the Court further indicated that an employee could overcome a seniority system’s presumed ability to trump the employee’s request for transfer if the employee could demonstrate that special circumstances warrant a finding that, despite the presence of a seniority system, the requested accommodation is reasonable under the particular circumstances. For example, the Court noted that an employer’s retained right to change the seniority system unilaterally might reduce employee expectations that the system will be followed. Therefore, one more departure from seniority-based rules to accommodate a disabled employee would not likely make a difference.
The decision in Barnett is a victory to employers who maintain self-initiated seniority systems. Previously, a request for an accommodation would be automatically considered unreasonable if it conflicted only with a collectively-bargained seniority system. However, this decision also indicates that should an employer wish to assert that its self-initiated seniority system trumps an employee’s request for an accommodation, it must also ensure that the tenets of the seniority system are followed on a consistent basis.
U.S. Airways, Inc. v. Barnett, Case No. 001250 (Apr. 29, 2002).