Labor and Employment: Seniority Can Trump Disability

The Supreme Court has recently taken yet another bite out of the Americans with Disabilities Act, making it easier for employers who consistently apply seniority systems to handle competing claims of ADA accommodation. The Supreme Court ruled that while a seniority system does not always “trump accommodation requests,” it “will prevail in the run of cases.” In a 5-4 decision in US Airways, Inc. v. Barnett, ___ U.S.___ ,122 S.Ct. 1516 (April 29, 2002), the Court held that except in “special circumstances,” the ADA does not give a worker with a disability a special chance of obtaining an accommodation that would violate a seniority system.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits an employer from discriminating against an individual with a disability who, with a “reasonable accommodation,” can perform the “essential functions of the job.” The Barnett case resolves the conflict between the interests of a disabled worker who seeks assignment to a particular position as a reasonable accommodation and the interests of other workers with superior rights to bid for the job under the employer’s seniority system. Mr. Barnett injured his back while working as a cargo handler for US Airways, Inc. Afterwards, he transferred to a less physically demanding mailroom position. His new position later became open to employee bidding under US Airways’ seniority system, and employees senior to him planned to bid on the job. Barnett asked the airline to allow him to remain in the mailroom instead of the successful bidder. US Airways refused, and Barnett lost his job. He then sued claiming that under the ADA, US Airways should have “accommodated” his disability by making an exception to its seniority bidding system.

The trial court dismissed the case, concluding that forcing the employer to alter its seniority system would result in an “undue hardship” to both US Airways and its nondisabled employees, and dismissed the case. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the seniority system was merely one factor in deciding whether the requested accommodation was an undue hardship and that a more fact intensive analysis was required to determine whether any particular assignment would constitute an undue hardship.

The U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the trial court’s dismissal. It held that an employer’s demonstration that a requested accommodation conflicts with its seniority rules is ordinarily sufficient to show that an “accommodation” is not “reasonable.” Still, the Barnett opinion provides that the disabled employee can try to present evidence of “special circumstances” that would make a seniority rule exception “reasonable” in the particular case. It is up to the employee to demonstrate that those special circumstances exist. The Supreme Court wrote, “The plaintiff has the burden of showing special circumstances and must explain why, in the particular case, an exception to the seniority system can constitute a reasonable accommodation even though in the ordinary case it cannot.”

The Supreme Court did not enumerate what might qualify as “special circumstances,” but it hinted that the evidence will have to be directed at the important expectations created by a seniority system. For example, if the employer unilaterally changed the seniority system on several occasions, then an employee could contend that his or her colleagues argument had a “diminished expectation” that the seniority system was going to be followed. The argument would be that if the non-disabled employees have no meaningful expectation that the seniority system is going to be followed, then they do not suffer any real injury when an exception is made to accommodate a disabled employee. Similarly, if the seniority system already contains numerous other exceptions, then one further exception to accommodate a disabled worker is less likely to mailer.

Barnett is the latest in a string of U.S. Supreme Court decisions tempering the Americans with Disabilities Act. In Toyota Motor Mfg., Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams, ___ U.S. ___, 122 S.Ct. 681(U.S. 2002), the Supreme Court held that for an employee to be considered “substantially limited” in performing manual tasks, the worker’s impairment must prevent or severely restrict him or her from doing activities that are of central importance to most people’s daily lives. In addition to considering evidence of an employee’s inability to do a job’s specified manual tasks, Courts may now consider the employee’s ability to perform tasks and activities central to daily living.

Earlier, in Sutton v. United Air Lines, Inc., U.S. _, 119 S.Ct. 2139 (U.S., 1999), the Court held that corrective and mitigating measures should be considered in determining whether an employee is “substantially limited” in a major life activity. It reasoned that the ADA focuses on present disability, not merely potential or hypothetical disability. In connection with Sutton, the Court noted in Murphy v. United Parcel Service, Inc., U.S. __, 119 S.Ct. 2133 (U.S., 1999) that the determination of whether an employee’s impairment “substantially limits” one or more major life activities is to be made with reference to the mitigating measures he employs. The Court held that an employee was not “disabled” under the ADA due to high blood pressure where his condition would not substantially limit him in any major life activity when he was properly medicated.

The new Barnett opinion further limits the ADA’s scope. It teaches companies to regularly follow their clearly defined seniority systems. If they do, then when a disabled employee seeks an accommodation that flies against that system, companies can safely decide in favor of the seniority system. On the other hand, those who maintain seniority systems riddled with exceptions and revisions, and those who ignore their seniority systems run the risk of facing a legitimate “accommodation” request that the seniority system cannot overcome. Counsel can help employers craft suitable seniority systems on which both management and labor can rely, even in the face of a claim for ADA accommodation.