As for the ADA, the Supreme Court may be at the potter’s wheel a long time before we see what ultimately remains of the law. High Court Pares Scope of ADA…
Seniority Has its Privileges

Imagine you’ve spent most of your working life with your nose pressed to a 15-inch computer monitor. Each day your fingers trudge across a keyboard, entering an endless stream of data into intricate spreadsheets. Mental escapes come in oscillatory glances at the Britney Spears cutout taped to the wall of your cubicle. And then the promotion for which you’ve endured the last decade is on the horizon. Your escape from "cube row" to the corner office with the comfy couch and view of the river. But wait…

"Can I see you for a minute," your boss mutters, eyes darting to the floor. "About that promotion… we’ve got a little problem. We’re giving the position to the new guy, Jim. Turns out his disability interferes with his ability to perform the duties for which he was hired. You know, ADA and all. Wish there was something I could do..."

Sound familiar? If so, you will be heartened to learn that on April 30, 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not require companies to provide exceptions to existing seniority policies to workers with disabilities. In a deeply splintered 5-4 opinion in US Airways v. Barnett, No. 00-1250, the Court held, "We can find nothing in the [ADA] that suggests Congress intended to undermine seniority systems."

In what’s being labeled by pundits as a "compromise," the Court ruled that in cases where an employer can show that a disabled employee was refused accommodation because of an established seniority system, the employer's action is presumptively reasonable. However, the Court chose not to say that seniority trumps ADA in all cases. The Court allows for the possibility of "special circumstances," where disabled workers might be granted an exception to seniority rules, such as in situations where a company has frequently made other exceptions to its seniority policy.

The case stems from a lawsuit brought by Robert Barnett, a US Airways cargo handler with a back injury, who cited the ADA in seeking to retain a less physically demanding position in the airline’s mailroom, despite more senior workers' right to bid for and receive that job under the company's seniority rules.

Justice Stephen Breyer, writing in the majority for Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy, argues that ignoring seniority systems would not be a "reasonable accommodation" under the ADA, as it would disrupt employee expectations of "fair, uniform treatment," and could affect an employee’s commitment to his or her job.

In a separate concurring opinion, Justice O’Connor admittedly set aside her personal preferences for the sake of a clear majority rule. "I think it important that a majority of the Court agree on a rule when interpreting statutes," she writes. O’Connor would have preferred that the Court adopt a different test to determine the value afforded seniority systems in order to differentiate between company-imposed seniority plans that are unenforceable and those which are more legally binding, such as labor union contracts.

In a blistering dissent, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas argue the ADA requires employers to relax only those workplace rules and practices that discriminate against an employee with a disability. "These include, for example, work stations that cannot accept the employee’s wheelchair, or an assembly-line practice that requires long periods of standing," writes Justice Scalia. They do not require suspension of workplace rules, such as seniority policies, that are applied equally to disabled and non-disabled employees. Meaning, disabled employees should not be entitled to a particular job or promotion solely as a result of their disability.

Dissenting for different reasons were Justices David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who write: "nothing in the ADA insulates seniority rules from the ‘reasonable accommodation’ requirement." They argue that legislative history teaches us that "seniority rules do not inevitably carry the day" but are merely a "factor" when determining whether some accommodation is reasonable.

While the Court sought to strike a compromise, the road ahead clearly lies in additional litigation as it has left a lot of gray area for lower courts to define what conditions constitute "special circumstances." As Justice Scalia sums up the majority decision: "Indulging its penchant for eschewing clear rules that might avoid litigation, . . . the Court answers ‘maybe.’"

Congress passed the ADA in 1990 to ensure equal access to employment and public accommodations for disabled individuals. The ADA prohibits an employer from discriminating against an "individual with a disability" who, with "reasonable accommodation," can perform the essential functions of the job. This is the second time this term the Court rejected a broader interpretation of the law. In January, the Court ruled that carpal tunnel syndrome can’t necessarily be defined as a disability. It points to a troublesome pattern of Congress passing massive, abstruse laws, and leaving it to the courts to read the tea leaves and trim them down, or worse, excise any unconstitutional provisions. (Campaign Finance Reform ring a bell?)

As for the ADA, the Supreme Court may be at the potter’s wheel a long time before we see what ultimately remains of the law.

To download the opinion, click here.

May 2, 2001
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