Under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 an employer may not discriminate against a qualified individual with a disability. A "qualified" individual includes an individual with a disability who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the relevant employment position. 42 U.S.C.S. § 12111(8). "Discrimination" includes an employer's not making reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified employee, unless the employer can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the business.
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 his job. Thereafter, Barnett filed a suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), claiming, among other things, that he was an individual with a disability capable of performing the essential functions of the mailroom job, that the mailroom job amounted to a reasonable accommodation of his disability, and that US Airways, in refusing to assign him the job, unlawfully discriminated against him. US Airways moved for summary judgment. It supported its motion with appropriate affidavits, contending that its well-established seniority system granted other employees the right to obtain the mailroom position. The District Court found that the undisputed facts about seniority warranted summary judgment in US Airways' favor. According to the District Court, given that US Airways’ seniority system has been in place for decades and governs over 14,000 US Airways’ Agents, it was clear that the airline’s employees were justified in relying upon the policy. As such, the district court opined that any significant alteration of that policy would result in undue hardship to both the company and its non-disabled employees. On appel, an en banc panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed. It ruled that the presence of a seniority system is merely a factor in the undue hardship analysis. Moreover, it concluded that a case-by-case fact intensive analysis is required to determine whether any particular reassignment would constitute an undue hardship to the employer. Subsequently, US Airways challenged the appellate court’s decision.
Is an employer required 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 bona fide and established seniority system?
The United States Supreme Court determined that the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 did not require an employer to reassign a disabled employee to a position as a reasonable accommodation, notwithstanding the fact that another employee is entitled to hold the position under the employer's bona fide and established seniority system. As such, in the case at bar, the Court ruled that US Airways was not required to assign Barnett to the mailroom position in violation of the established seniority system. According to the Court, the showing that the assignment would violate the rules of the seniority system warranted summary judgment for the employer, unless the employee presented evidence of special circumstances surrounding the particular case that demonstrated the assignment was nonetheless reasonable.