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US Airways, Inc. v Barnett, 000 U.S. 00-1250 (2002).

Question Presented:

The Supreme Court, on April 29, 2002, decided whether the Americans with Disabilities Act required an employer to reassign an employee with a disability to a position as a reasonable accommodation even though other employees had priority to that position under a disability-neutral seniority bidding system. Specifically, does an assignment that violates the rules of a seniority system make the accommodation request an unreasonable one? The Supreme Court answered this question with a qualified yes.

Facts of the Case:

Robert Barnett injured his back while working as a cargo-handler for US. Airways. He transferred to a less demanding mailroom position using his seniority rights. Under this seniority system, the position periodically became open to seniority-based employee bidding. Two years later, Barnett found out that two senior employees intended to bid on his position so he asked US Airways to accommodate him by making an exception to that rule so he could keep his mailroom position. U.S. Airways decided not to make this exception and Barnett lost his job.


In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held that an employer showing that a requested
reassignment violated an established seniority system is sufficient to make the accommodation request unreasonable for the purposes of the ADA... however, the plaintiff could still show special circumstances that would make the exception "reasonable."

Justice Breyer, writing for the majority, stressed the importance of seniority systems to employer-management relations in supporting their conclusion.

...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... They include an element of due process, limiting unfairness in personnel decisions... And they consequently encourage employees to invest in the employing company, accepting less than their value to the firm early in their careers in return for greater benefits in later years.

Justice Breyer reasoned that to require an employer to show more than the existence of seniority system would undermine the employee's expectation of consistent uniform treatment. Requiring such a rule "would substitute a complex case specific 'accommodation' decision made by management for the more uniform, impersonal operation of seniority rules." The Supreme Court found nothing in the ADA that suggested Congress had intended to undermine seniority systems this way.

The decision did not create a complete bar for employees with disabilities seeking reassignment as an accommodation in workplaces governed by seniority agreements. Plaintiffs can still show that special circumstances can make the accommodation reasonable despite the presence of a seniority system. The Supreme Court gave two examples where a requested accommodation is reasonable on the particular facts:

The plaintiff might show, for example, that the employer, having retained the right to change the seniority system unilaterally, exercises that right fairly frequently, reducing employee expectations that the system will be followed to the point where one more departure, needed to accommodate an individual with a disability, will not likely make a difference. The plaintiff might show that the system already contains exceptions such that, in the circumstances, one further exception is unlikely to matter.

These circumstances are not limited to the examples listed above, but the plaintiff must bear the burden of proof on showing that these circumstances make an exception from the seniority system reasonable. That is, the plaintiff must be prepared to explain why an exception to the employer's seniority policy is a reasonable accommodation even though normally it's not.

Does this holding mean that the violation of any disability-neutral workplace rule would render a requested accommodation unreasonable?

No. The Supreme Court stated that an accommodation that gives a worker with a disability a preference -- that is, allows him to violate a rule that others must obey "cannot, in and of itself, automatically show that the accommodation is not 'reasonable." U.S. Airways had argued that the ADA did not require an employer to grant preferential treatment. The Supreme Court rejected that notion by recognizing that preferences are sometimes necessary to achieve the ADA's equal opportunity goal. "By definition any special accommodation requires an employer to treat an employee with a disability differently." This holding is limited to seniority rights.

Why is an exception to the seniority system considered an "un" reasonable accommodation for the employee rather than an undue hardship to the employer? What's the significance of the difference?

The lower courts in this case had analyzed the exception under the undue burden standard. The district court had determined that an exception to a well established seniority system imposed an undue hardship on the business. The Ninth Circuit had reversed saying that the presence of a seniority system was only a factor in determining whether there had been an undue hardship.

The difference in analyzing the exception as a reasonable accommodation or as an undue hardship lies in the burden of proof. The Supreme Court endorsed the procedure that other courts have used in that the plaintiff has the burden of proving that an accommodation seems reasonable on its face. Once an accommodation is proven reasonable, the employer then must show that the accommodation causes an undue hardship to its business.

So the gist of it is, that the plaintiff has the burden of proof in proving that an accommodation is reasonable while an employer has the burden of proof if the exception is analyzed as an undue hardship. The Supreme Court valued the importance of a seniority system by presuming that an exception to it as being unreasonable. Therefore an exception is presumed to be "un"reasonable unless the plaintiff can show special circumstances that prove it to be reasonable. The Supreme Court does not think that employers have to prove that the exception constitutes an undue hardship because of its fear that a case-by-case analysis would undermine the employee's expectations of the seniority system.

So what does this mean for Mr. Barnett?

Barnett didn't exactly lose this case. The lower courts decided the issue incorrectly by viewing the exception under an undue burden analysis. The Supreme Court established the proper standard to apply in this scenario. The case is remanded back to the lower courts. Mr. Barnett's accommodation request is presumed to be unreasonable unless he can show that special circumstances make such a request reasonable.

*By Vinh Nguyen JD, MBA, Legal Director
Southwest ADA Center at ILRU
(a program of TIRR) and one of ten
Disablity and Business Technical
Assistance Centers funded by NIDRR
(National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research)

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