April 29, 2002
WASHINGTON, Apr 29, 2002 (U.S. Newswire via COMTEX) -- The National Council on Disability (NCD) is profoundly concerned by the U.S. Supreme Court's April 29, 2002, 5-4 decision in US Airways, Inc. v. Barnett (No. 00-1250), in which the Court continued its trend of narrowing the reach of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by holding that a request for reassignment to keep an employee with a disability working would most likely be found unreasonable when it conflicts with the terms of an employer's seniority system. In its previous five ADA cases involving the workplace, the Court has ruled against the applicant or employee each time.
In this fractured 5-4 ruling, including two separate concurring opinions and two separate dissenting opinions, the Court held that an employer's showing that an accommodation violates a seniority system's rules will ordinarily be sufficient to show that an accommodation is not reasonable. According to Justice Breyer, however, the employee may present evidence of "special circumstances" that makes an exception to the seniority rule reasonable in a particular case.
The majority opinion bases its ruling, in part, on the view that seniority systems "provide important employee benefits by creating and fulfilling employee expectations of fair, uniform treatment." NCD believes that this reasoning justifies giving senior workers more "fair and uniform treatment" at the expense of disabled workers' own expectations of fair and uniform treatment under ADA.
NCD agrees with Justice Souter that the legislative history clearly evinces Congress' intent that seniority protections "should not amount to more than 'a factor' when it comes to deciding whether some accommodation at odds with the seniority rules is 'reasonable' nevertheless." NCD agrees with Justice Souter that "(n)othing in the ADA insulates seniority rules from the 'reasonable accommodation' requirement..."
While NCD is encouraged that the Court in Barnett chose not to go so far as adopting a hardheaded bright-line rule that would completely insulate a neutral employment policy like a seniority system from ADA's accommodation requirements, this decision has the troubling potential to open the door for any group of employees to protect their specific interests at the expense of those seeking reasonable accommodations under ADA.
For more information, contact Mark S. Quigley at 202-272-2004.
NCD is an independent federal agency making recommendations to the President and Congress on disability policy. In 1986, NCD first proposed and then drafted the original Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Currently, NCD is coordinating a multi-year study on the implementation and enforcement of ADA, IDEA, and other civil rights laws.
(C) 2002 US Newswire