Justices Further Limit Scope of Disability Act

Law Doesn't Trump Seniority Policies

By Charles Lane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 30, 2002; Page A04

The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that a federal law designed to protect disabled people from workplace discrimination does not normally require companies to bend their seniority rules so disabled employees can have particular jobs.

A five-member majority of a splintered court held that, in ordinary cases, such an exception would be too disruptive for other employees who had built their own career expectations around a company seniority plan, and thus would not be a "reasonable accommodation" under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

"In our view, the seniority system will prevail in the run of cases," Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote in the opinion for the court, which was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony M. Kennedy. Breyer added, "We can find nothing in the [ADA] that suggests Congress intended to undermine seniority systems."

Congress passed the landmark 1990 statute to ensure equal access to jobs and public accommodations for chronically ill and disabled people. In recent years, the court has acted in a number of cases to limit the scope of the ADA in the workplace -- and yesterday's ruling fit that pattern. Most recently, in January the court made it more difficult for employees with ailments such as carpal tunnel syndrome to demand accommodation on the job.

"All truly bona fide company seniority systems will survive the test the court sketched out" yesterday, said Walter Dellinger, who represented US Airways in its bid to defeat a lawsuit by Robert Barnett, an employee who has back problems and who had sought to keep a less physically demanding mailroom job. Another US Airways worker was entitled to the job under company seniority rules, which cover about 14,000 employees.

Jim Dickson, vice president for government relations for the American Association of People With Disabilities, criticized the court, saying, "They're taking a civil rights statute and interpreting it narrowly as if it were the tax code."

However, the ruling was not an unqualified endorsement of US Airways' position, which was that seniority should always trump disability, lest the ADA turn into a law mandating preferences for the disabled instead of equal treatment.

Breyer's opinion specifically left open the possibility that a disabled employee's needs could override seniority in "special" cases -- for example, when the employer already made frequent exceptions to a seniority plan.

Indeed, the decision bore all the hallmarks of a difficult compromise among the justices, who clearly struggled to sort out a case in which core interests not only of employers and disabled workers but also of nondisabled workers were at stake.

In a separate concurring opinion, O'Connor bluntly explained that she cast a fifth vote for Breyer's opinion because "if each member voted consistently with his or her beliefs, we would not agree on a resolution of the question presented in this case."

O'Connor said she would have preferred a ruling that explicitly gave less weight to seniority plans imposed by companies on their own, which, unlike those provided for in contracts with labor unions, are not necessarily legally binding.

The splintering of the court also was reflected in dissenting opinions that attacked Breyer's compromise language from two directions.

Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by fellow conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, attacked the majority for fudging the issue. "[I]ndulging its penchant for eschewing clear rules that might avoid litigation, the Court answers 'maybe,' " Scalia wrote.

And Breyer was taken to task by two liberal justices with whom he frequently agrees, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Souter's dissenting opinion, which Ginsburg joined, noted that "[n]othing in the ADA insulates seniority rules from the 'reasonable accommodation' requirement."

Disability-rights advocates said that, although they consider the ruling generally a setback for their cause, the compromise language in the court's opinion actually meant that the legal position of workers in some areas would improve.

That is because federal appeals courts in several regions, including the one whose jurisdiction includes Maryland and Virginia, had previously held that seniority plans trump accommodation of the disabled in every case, said Eric Schnapper, a University of Washington law professor who had represented Barnett.

At the same time, the court reversed a 2000 ruling in Barnett's case by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit that seniority must give way to disability needs. The 9th Circuit's jurisdiction includes California.

"We will need a number of years for lower courts to think out what kinds of exceptions will be permitted," Schnapper said.

Also, O'Connor's concurring opinion, which seems to hinge on her prediction that Breyer's view of the law will produce results similar to those that would have flowed from her interpretation, could "cause great consternation in lower courts," said Michael Gottesman, a law professor at Georgetown University who works closely with disability-rights advocates.

Some courts, Gottesman suggested, could say that because O'Connor's vote made a majority, "the opinion is no stronger than O'Connor's concurrence."

The case is US Airways v. Barnett, No. 00-1250.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company


From: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A1719-2002Apr29.html