US Airways, Inc. v. Barnett

LOCATION:United States District Court Eastern District of Louisiana

DOCKET NO.: 00-1250
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 535 US 391 (2002)
ARGUED: Dec 04, 2001
DECIDED: Apr 29, 2002

Claudia Center – Argued the cause for the respondent
Walter E. Dellinger, III – Argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

In 1990, Robert Barnett injured his back while working in a cargo-handling position at US Airways. Invoking his seniority rights, Barnett transferred to a less physically demanding position in the mailroom. Subsequently, Barnett’s new position became open to seniority-based employee bidding under US Airways’ seniority system and, ultimately, he lost his job. Barnett then filed suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), which prohibits an employer from discriminating against “an individual with a disability” who with “reasonable accommodation” can perform a job’s essential functions unless the employer “can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of [its] business.” In granting US Airways summary judgment, the District Court found that altering a seniority system would result in an “undue hardship” to both US Airways and its nondisabled employees. In reversing, the Court of Appeals held that the seniority system was merely a factor in the undue hardship analysis and that a case-by-case, fact intensive analysis is required to determine whether any particular assignment would constitute an undue hardship.


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?

Media for US Airways, Inc. v. Barnett

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – December 04, 2001 in US Airways, Inc. v. Barnett

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – April 29, 2002 in US Airways, Inc. v. Barnett

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court No. 00-1250, United States Airways versus Barnett will be announced by Justice Breyer.

Stephen G. Breyer:

The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits an employer from discriminating against an “individual with a disability” who with “reasonable accommodation” can perform the essential functions of the job.

This case asks as to reconcile a conflict that can rise between on the one hand the need of a disabled worker for an accommodation that takes the form of an assignment to another position in different job in the company, and on the other hand, employees who hold superior rights to bid for that very job under an employer’s system of seniority.

This case arises in the context of summary judgment.

The conflict is who gets the job, the worker with a disability or the worker who has the seniority.

In our efforts to resolve this potential conflict which is complicated, we reached five significant legal conclusions and I will simply say what the conclusions are: first, we conclude that the word reasonable in the context of reasonable accommodation does not have a special technical meaning rather Congress intended that word to carry the meaning that it has in ordinary English; second, the Act may sometimes require an employer in order to accommodate the needs of an individual with a disability to violate and otherwise disability neutral workplace rule for example, maybe the employee who has the disability would need more work breaks then the employer’s neutral rules would otherwise allow.

Now the Acts basic equal opportunity goal may require the employer to give in that sense the employee a preference where special treatment is needed to accommodate the disability and in the circumstances providing that preference is a reasonable thing to do.

Third, we note the difficulty that courts have had and they have had considerable difficulty.

I am trying to reconcile two phrases in this statute: the one seems to say that the plaintiff has approved that the accommodation that, say, she needs is reasonable, and the other seems to require an employer to prove that an accommodation is nonetheless not required because it will work “an undue hardship” upon the business.

So, what is the relation of these two words, reasonable accommodation, and undue hardship on the business.?

We have reconciled those two phrases in the same way that most lower courts have reconciled.

The plaintiff who is an employee with the disability has to show that the proposed accommodation seems reasonable on its face that is that it would ordinarily be reasonable, it would be reasonable in the run of cases.

Now, once the plaintiff has shown that then the defendant who is likely the employer has to show special and typically there are case specific circumstances that show that in this case, whatever is true in general there will be undue hardship.

Fourth, applying this rule we conclude that the seniority system will ordinarily — that is in the run of cases — it ordinarily will trump a conflicting demand for accommodation.

That is to say where an individual with a disability seeks an assignment to another position but a different employee has seniority rights that entitle that different employee to the position.

That different employee ordinarily will win and we say that ordinarily the requested accommodation will not be reasonable as a matter of law.

But fifth, the plaintiff remains free to show special circumstances that would require or bring up warrant a finding that the requested accommodation is reasonable in the particular circumstances.

The plaintiff might show for example that the seniority system has many other exceptions so one more will not make that much difference or that the employer having retained the right to change the seniority system unilaterally exercises that right frequently enough so that in terms of employee expectation one more departure needed to accommodate a disability will likely not matter.

The point is that the plaintiff has to explain why in the particular case, an exception to the employer’s seniority policy makes the proposed conflicting accommodation reasonable even though in the ordinary case it would not be reasonable.

Since the parties have not had an opportunity to seek some re-judgment in accordance with these principles, we vacate the decision of the Court of Appeals and we remand the case.

Five members of the court have joined this opinion.

I stressed that because there are quite a few writing.

Justice Stevens while joining this opinion has also written a separate concurring opinion; Justice O’Connor while joining the opinion has also written a separate concurring opinion; Justice Scalia whom Justice Thomas joins has written a dissenting opinion; Justice Souter whom Justice Ginsburg joins has also written a dissenting opinion.