Disabled Worker Not Entitled to 'Plum' Assignment

April 29, 2002 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - The US Supreme Court has thrown out a lower court ruling giving a US Airways baggage handler job preference over senior co-workers, saying that disabled employees aren't always entitled to premium assignments.

In a split 5-4 decision written by Justice Stephen Breyer, the court said the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not pre-empt normal company seniority policies, according to an Associated Press report.

Even in reversing a lower court and sending the case involving Robert Barnett back for further action, justices appeared to leave open the possibility that disabled workers might still get special treatment if they can prove they’re an exception to the rule.

“In our view, the seniority system will prevail in the run of cases,” Breyer wrote.
US Airways had appealed in the Barnett case, asking whether the ADA was intended to take precedence over its normal practice. “We answer that ordinarily the ADA does not require that assignment,” Breyer wrote.

Scalia: More Employer Protection

Justice Antonin Scalia said in a dissent that the court should have taken a stronger position protecting employers from lawsuits over seniority systems. Also dissenting were Justices Clarence Thomas, David Souter, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The ruling applies to both union and nonunion companies. As a practical matter, it will have more effect on systems that are a matter of company policy, rather than a result of an employer’s contract with its unions, employment lawyers told the Associated Press.

“The typical seniority system provides important employee benefits by creating, and fulfilling, employee expectations of fair, uniform treatment,” Breyer wrote.

Case Background

Under the US Airways seniority system, about 14,000 customer service employees receive duties, shifts, transfers and holidays based on experience.

Barnett sought a transfer after hurting his back loading baggage at San Francisco International Airport in 1990. He was given a job in the mailroom, but employees with more seniority later requested the same position. Under seniority rules, they could bump him to a less desirable job.

Barnett sued in 1994 under the ADA and won in lower courts. The Ninth US
Circuit Court of Appeals said employers cannot use a seniority system to avoid seeking solutions for disabled employees.

The case is US Airways v. Barnett, 00-1250.