Supreme Court Term Rough for ADA: U.S. Airways v. Barnett

By Melanie R. Margolis

The 2001-2002 Supreme Court term was not kind to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). First, in Toyota Motor Mfg., Ky., Inc. v. Williams, 534 U.S. 184 (2002), accessible at, the Court held that an individual with carpal tunnel syndrome was not protected under the ADA. For a discussion of this case, see Individual with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Did Not Have a Disability Under the ADA at Then, the Supreme Court held that an employer seniority system took precedence over a reasonable accommodation under the ADA in U.S. Airways v. Barnett, Web-accessible at

In U.S. Airways v. Barnett, the U.S. Supreme Court considered whether the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) required an employer to allow an employee with a disability to be employed in a position as a reasonable accommodation when another employee was entitled to that position under the employer’s seniority system. In other words, did the reasonable accommodation requirement of the ADA take precedence over the established seniority system?

A deeply divided Supreme Court held that the seniority system took precedence. Justice Breyer delivered the opinion joined by Justices Rehnquist, Stevens, O’Connor, and Kennedy. Justices Stevens and O’Connor filed concurring opinions. Justice Scalia dissented joined by Justice Thomas. Justice Souter dissented joined by Justice Ginsburg.

In 1990, Robert Barnett, a cargo handler at U.S. Airways, injured his back on the job. As he was entitled to do under his employer’s seniority system, he transferred to a less demanding position in the mailroom. Two years later, employees senior to Barnett sought his mailroom position in accordance with the employer’s seniority system. He asked U.S. Airways to make an exception to the seniority system requirements and permit him to stay in the position as an accommodation to his disability. U.S. Airways allowed Barnett to remain in the position for five months while they considered his request, but, ultimately, U.S. Airways denied Barnett’s request.

Barnett sued U.S. Airways under the ADA. He contended that he was an individual with a disability, that the mailroom job was a reasonable accommodation of his disability, and that U.S. Airways violated the ADA by not permitting him to keep the job. U.S. Airways argued that others were entitled to the job under the seniority system.

The District Court held in favor of U.S. Airways. The ADA provides that an employer discriminates against an individual with a disability by failing to make a reasonable accommodation unless the employer shows the accommodation would result in an undue hardship on its operation. See 42 U.S.C. 12112(b)(5)(A). The court noted that: the seniority system had been in place for many years; its policies were common in the airline industry; and over 14,000 U.S. Airways employees justifiably relied on the seniority system. Therefore, the court reasoned, altering the policies that were in place would work an undue hardship on U.S. Airways and its employees.

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the District Court’s decision. The appellate court held that a seniority system did not automatically result in undue hardship, but would be a factor for consideration in the undue hardship analysis, and accommodation decisions should be made on a case by case basis.

On appeal to the Supreme Court, U.S. Airways argued that an accommodation that required an exception to a seniority system always showed that an accommodation was not reasonable. On the other hand, Barnett argued that an exception to a seniority system never showed that an accommodation was not reasonable, but it could help show that the accommodation would cause undue employer hardship, which the employer would have to show (because it would be extremely difficult for an employee to carry the burden of proving that an accommodation would not work an undue hardship on an employer).

The Court debated the merits of each argument and determined that the decision rode on how the phrase reasonable accommodation was reconciled with the phrase undue hardship. The Court held that:

Absent the seniority system, the mailroom assignment would have been considered reasonable. In the Court’s view, the fact that the assignment violated the seniority system, rendered the accommodation not reasonable.  Thus, if an accommodation violates a seniority system, the employee will lose, absent something more. The burden falls on the employee to show something more that would render the accommodation reasonable in a particular case. The Court sets forth two examples of what might constitute more: Despite this second blow delivered to the ADA by the Supreme Court this term, the ADA was not mortally wounded. The Supreme Court left open the possibility, however remote, that a seniority system could be subordinate to a reasonable accommodation. The  Court, however, then continued the trend of deciding against ADA plaintiffs. In Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Echazabal, available at, the Court held that despite the ADA, an employer can refuse to hire a worker with a disability whose employment may cause harm to himself or herself. Furthermore, the Court held in another case that punitive damages may not be awarded in private suits brought under 42 U.S.C. § 12132, the portion of the ADA that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities by public entities. See Barnes v. Gorman, available at Perhaps the ADA will fare better next term...