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May 2002
01
May 01, 2002

Supreme Court Rules That Seniority System Will Usually (But Not Always) Trump Accommodation Request

In what is likely another pro-employer decision, the United States Supreme Court held that an employee's accommodation request which contradicts an employer's seniority system is "ordinarily" unreasonable. In U.S. Airways, Inc. v. Barnett (No. 001250, April 29, 2002), the airline had adopted a system whereby seniority was used to award jobs. It was not part of any collective bargaining agreement and U.S. Air reserved the right to make exceptions to the policy. The plaintiff, Robert Barnett, had suffered a work-related injury and used his seniority to obtain a less physically demanding mailroom job. Under U.S. Air policy, however, that job came up for bidding and a more senior employee bid on it. Although Barnett asked U.S. Air to make an exception to its policy and let him stay in his job, the airline refused and he was displaced. He sued, claiming that U.S. Air violated its duty under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") to make reasonable accommodations. U.S. Air argued its neutral seniority-based system was a complete defense to Barnett's claim.

The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed with both Barnett and U.S. Air. Because seniority-based systems create certain expectations on the part of other employees, the Court held that when an employee requests an accommodation that contradicts a seniority-based system, the employer is entitled to a presumption that the accommodation is unreasonable. The employee, however, may rebut this presumption by showing that "special circumstances" exist which show that despite the seniority system, the requested accommodation is reasonable. According to the Court, such special circumstances could include the fact that the employer disregards the system on a fairly regular basis (thereby reducing employee expectations that the system will be followed) or that the system contains so many exceptions that adding one more would likely not make a difference. Because neither Barnett nor U.S. Air had the opportunity to present evidence within this framework, the Court remanded the case back to the trial court.

As noted above, the Barnett decision is another apparent victory for employers under the ADA. The Court specifically stated that requested accommodations which violate a seniority-based system will "ordinarily" be unreasonable. In light of Barnett, employers who have or who adopt seniority-based systems should be careful to follow them consistently and should limit the number of exceptions to the system. Because Barnett dealt only with a seniority-based job-bidding system, employers should be cautious about attempting to extend its reasoning too far. In reaching its conclusion, the Court relied very heavily on the settled expectations that seniority systems create for employees and the disruption that allowing accommodations would create. It did not say, however, that every facially neutral or objective employer policy will presumptively trump an accommodation request.

For more information, contact Rob Dubault at rdubault@wnj.com or call him directly at 231.727.2638.
 

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