US Airways, Inc. v. Barnett

Facts of the Case

In 1990, Robert Barnett, the respondent, injured his back while working in a cargo-handling position at petitioner US Airways, Inc. He invoked seniority rights and transferred to a less physically demanding mailroom position. Under US Airways’ seniority system, that position, like others, periodically became open to seniority-based employee bidding. In 1992, Barnett learned that at least two employees senior to him intended to bid for the mailroom job. He asked US Airways to accommodate his disability-imposed limitations by making an exception that would allow him to remain in the mailroom. After permitting Barnett to continue his mailroom work for five months while it considered the matter, US Airways eventually decided not to make an exception. And Barnett lost

Question

Does the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 require an employer to reassign a disabled employee to a position as a reasonable accommodation even though another employee is entitled to hold the position under the employer’s seniority system?

CONCLUSION

No. In a 5-4 opinion delivered by Justice Stephen G. Breyer, the Court held that the ADA did not require the employer to assign the employee to the mailroom position in violation of the established seniority system. The Court reasoned that an employer’s showing that a requested accommodation conflicts with seniority rules is ordinarily sufficient to show that an accommodation is not reasonable. However, the Court added, an employee remains free to present evidence of special circumstances that makes a seniority rule exception reasonable in the particular case. Justice Antonin Scalia, in a dissent joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, argued that the accommodation provision of the ADA requires the suspension, within reason, of employment rules and practices that an employee’s disability prevents him from observing. Also dissenting, Justice David H. Souter, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, argued that US Airways failed to establish any burden brought on by accommodating Barnett.

Case Information

  • Citation: 535 US 391 (2002)
  • Argued: Dec 4, 2001
  • Decided Apr 29, 2002