US AIRWAYS, INC. v. BARNETT No. 00-1250.
535 U.S. 391 (2002)
US AIRWAYS, INC. v. BARNETT
United States Supreme Court.
Decided April 29, 2002.
Walter E. Dellinger argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Lawrence M. Nagin and Robert A. Siegel.
Claudia Center argued the cause for respondent. With her on the brief were William C. McNeill III, Eric Schnapper, Todd Schneider, Guy Wallace, and Robert W. Rychlik. *
Breyer, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Stevens, O'Connor, and Kennedy, JJ., joined. Stevens, J., p. 406, and O'Connor, J., p. 408, filed concurring opinions. Scalia, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Thomas, J., joined, p. 411. Souter, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Ginsburg, J., joined, p. 420.
Justice Breyer, delivered the opinion of the Court.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA or Act), 104 Stat. 328, 42 U. S. C. § 12101 et seq. (1994 ed. and Supp. V), prohibits an employer from discriminating against an "individual with a disability" who, with "reasonable accommodation," can perform the essential functions of the job. §§ 12112(a) and (b) (1994 ed.). This case, arising in the context of summary judgment, asks us how the Act resolves a potential conflict between: (1) the interests of a disabled worker who seeks assignment to a particular position as a "reasonable accommodation," and (2) the interests of other workers with superior rights to bid for the job under an employer's
In our view, the seniority system will prevail in the run of cases. As we interpret the statute, to show that a requested accommodation conflicts with the rules of a seniority system is ordinarily to show that the accommodation is not "reasonable." Hence such a showing will entitle an employer/defendant to summary judgment on the question— unless there is more. The plaintiff remains free to present evidence of special circumstances that make "reasonable" a seniority rule exception in the particular case. And such a showing will defeat the employer's demand for summary judgment. Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 56(e).
In 1990, Robert Barnett, the plaintiff and respondent here, 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 senioritybased 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.
Barnett then brought this ADA suit 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
The District Court found that the undisputed facts about seniority warranted summary judgment in US Airways' favor. The Act says that an employer who fails to make "reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an [employee] with a disability" discriminates "unless" the employer "can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of [its] business." 42 U. S. C. § 12112(b)(5)(A) (emphasis added). The court said:
An en banc panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed. It said that the presence of a seniority system is merely "a factor in the undue hardship analysis."
US Airways petitioned for certiorari, asking us to decide whether
The Circuits have reached different conclusions about the legal significance of a seniority system. Compare 228 F. 3d, at 1120, with EEOC v. Sara Lee Corp.,
In answering the question presented, we must consider the following statutory provisions. First, the ADA says that an employer may not "discriminate against a qualified individual with a disability." 42 U. S. C. § 12112(a). Second, the ADA says that 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." § 12111(8) (emphasis added). Third, the ADA says that "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 operation of [its] business." § 12112(b)(5)(A) (emphasis added). Fourth, the ADA says that the term "`reasonable accommodation' may include . . . reassignment to a vacant position." § 12111(9)(B).
The parties interpret this statutory language as applied to seniority systems in radically different ways. In US Airways' view, the fact that an accommodation would violate the rules of a seniority system always shows that the accommodation is not a "reasonable" one. In Barnett's polar opposite view, a seniority system violation never shows that an accommodation sought is not a "reasonable" one. Barnett concedes that a violation of seniority rules might help to show that the accommodation will work "undue" employer "hardship," but that is a matter for an employer to demonstrate
US Airways' claim that a seniority system virtually always trumps a conflicting accommodation demand rests primarily upon its view of how the Act treats workplace "preferences." Insofar as a requested accommodation violates a disability-neutral workplace rule, such as a seniority rule, it grants the employee with a disability treatment that other workers could not receive. Yet the Act, US Airways says, seeks only "equal" treatment for those with disabilities. See, e. g., 42 U. S. C. § 12101(a)(9). It does not, it contends, require an employer to grant preferential treatment. Cf. H. R. Rep. No. 101-485, pt. 2, p. 66 (1990); S. Rep. No. 101-116, pp. 26-27 (1989) (employer has no "obligation to prefer applicants with disabilities over other applicants " (emphasis added)). Hence it does not require the employer to grant a request that, in violating a disability-neutral rule, would provide a preference.
While linguistically logical, this argument fails to recognize what the Act specifies, namely, that preferences will sometimes prove necessary to achieve the Act's basic equal opportunity goal. The Act requires preferences in the form of "reasonable accommodations" that are needed for those with disabilities to obtain the same workplace opportunities that those without disabilities automatically enjoy. By definition any special "accommodation" requires the employer to treat an employee with a disability differently, i. e., preferentially. And the fact that the difference in treatment violates an employer's disability-neutral rule cannot by itself place the accommodation beyond the Act's potential reach.
Were that not so, the "reasonable accommodation" provision could not accomplish its intended objective. Neutral office assignment rules would automatically prevent the accommodation
In sum, the nature of the "reasonable accommodation" requirement, the statutory examples, and the Act's silence about the exempting effect of neutral rules together convince us that the Act does not create any such automatic exemption. The simple fact that an accommodation would provide a "preference"—in the sense that it would permit the worker with a disability to violate a rule that others must obey—cannot, in and of itself, automatically show that the accommodation is not "reasonable." As a result, we reject the position taken by US Airways and Justice Scalia to the contrary.
US Airways also points to the ADA provisions stating that a "`reasonable accommodation' may include . . . reassignment to a vacant position." § 12111(9)(B) (emphasis added). And
Barnett argues that the statutory words "reasonable accommodation" mean only "effective accommodation," authorizing a court to consider the requested accommodation's ability to meet an individual's disability-related needs, and nothing more. On this view, a seniority rule violation, having nothing to do with the accommodation's effectiveness, has nothing to do with its "reasonableness." It might, at most, help to prove an "undue hardship on the operation of the business." But, he adds, that is a matter that the statute requires the employer to demonstrate, case by case.
In support of this interpretation Barnett points to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) regulations stating that "reasonable accommodation means . . . . [m]odifications or adjustments . . . that enable a qualified individual with a disability to perform the essential functions of [a] position." 29 CFR § 1630(o)(ii) (2001) (emphasis added). See also H. R. Rep. No. 101-485, pt. 2, at 66; S. Rep. No. 101-116,
The practical burden of proof dilemma arises, Barnett argues, because the statute imposes the burden of demonstrating an "undue hardship" upon the employer, while the burden of proving "reasonable accommodation" remains with the plaintiff, here the employee. This allocation seems sensible in that an employer can more frequently and easily prove the presence of business hardship than an employee can prove its absence. But suppose that an employee must counter a claim of "seniority rule violation" in order to prove that an "accommodation" request is "reasonable." Would that not force the employee to prove what is in effect an absence, i. e., an absence of hardship, despite the statute's insistence that the employer "demonstrate" hardship's presence?
These arguments do not persuade us that Barnett's legal interpretation of "reasonable" is correct. For one thing, in ordinary English the word "reasonable" does not mean "effective." It is the word "accommodation," not the word "reasonable," that conveys the need for effectiveness. An ineffective "modification" or "adjustment" will not accommodate a disabled individual's limitations. Nor does an ordinary English meaning of the term "reasonable accommodation" make of it a simple, redundant mirror image of the term "undue hardship." The statute refers to an "undue hardship on the operation of the business." 42 U. S. C. § 12112(b)(5)(A). Yet a demand for an effective accommodation could prove unreasonable because of its impact, not on business operations, but on fellow employees—say, because it will lead to dismissals, relocations, or modification of employee
Neither does the statute's primary purpose require Barnett's special reading. The statute seeks to diminish or to eliminate the stereotypical thought processes, the thoughtless actions, and the hostile reactions that far too often bar those with disabilities from participating fully in the Nation's life, including the workplace. See generally §§ 12101(a) and (b). These objectives demand unprejudiced thought and reasonable responsive reaction on the part of employers and fellow workers alike. They will sometimes require affirmative conduct to promote entry of disabled people into the work force. See supra, at 397-398. They do not, however, demand action beyond the realm of the reasonable.
Neither has Congress indicated in the statute, or elsewhere, that the word "reasonable" means no more than "effective." The EEOC regulations do say that reasonable accommodations "enable" a person with a disability to perform the essential functions of a task. But that phrasing simply emphasizes the statutory provision's basic objective. The regulations do not say that "enable" and "reasonable" mean the same thing. And as discussed below, no court of appeals has so read them. But see 228 F. 3d, at 1122-1123 (Gould, J., concurring).
Finally, an ordinary language interpretation of the word "reasonable" does not create the "burden of proof" dilemma to which Barnett points. Many of the lower courts, while rejecting both US Airways' and Barnett's more absolute views, have reconciled the phrases "reasonable accommodation" and "undue hardship" in a practical way.
They have held that a plaintiff/employee (to defeat a defendant/employer's motion for summary judgment) need only show that an "accommodation" seems reasonable on its face, i. e., ordinarily or in the run of cases. See, e. g., Reed v. LePage Bakeries, Inc.,
Once the plaintiff has made this showing, the defendant/ employer then must show special (typically case-specific) circumstances that demonstrate undue hardship in the particular circumstances. See Reed, supra, at 258 ("`undue hardship inquiry focuses on the hardships imposed . . . in the context of the particular [employer's] operations' ") (quoting Barth, supra, at 1187); Borkowski, supra, at 138 (after plaintiff makes initial showing, burden falls on employer to show that particular accommodation "would cause it to suffer an undue hardship"); Barth, supra, at 1187 ("undue hardship inquiry focuses on the hardships imposed . . . in the context of the particular agency's operations").
Not every court has used the same language, but their results are functionally similar. In our opinion, that practical view of the statute, applied consistently with ordinary summary judgment principles, see Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 56, avoids Barnett's burden of proof dilemma, while reconciling the two statutory phrases ("reasonable accommodation" and "undue hardship").
The question in the present case focuses on the relationship between seniority systems and the plaintiff's need to show that an "accommodation" seems reasonable on its face, i. e., ordinarily or in the run of cases. We must assume that the plaintiff, an employee, is an "individual with a disability." He has requested assignment to a mailroom position as a
In our view, the answer to this question ordinarily is "yes." The statute does not require proof on a case-by-case basis that a seniority system should prevail. That is because it would not be reasonable in the run of cases that the assignment in question trump the rules of a seniority system. To the contrary, it will ordinarily be unreasonable for the assignment to prevail.
Several factors support our conclusion that a proposed accommodation will not be reasonable in the run of cases. Analogous case law supports this conclusion, for it has recognized the importance of seniority to employee-management relations. This Court has held that, in the context of a Title VII religious discrimination case, an employer need not adapt to an employee's special worship schedule as a "reasonable accommodation" where doing so would conflict with the seniority rights of other employees. Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison,
For one thing, the typical seniority system provides important employee benefits by creating, and fulfilling, employee expectations of fair, uniform treatment. These benefits include "job security and an opportunity for steady and predictable advancement based on objective standards." Brief for Petitioner 32 (citing Fallon & Weiler, Firefighters v. Stotts: Conflicting Models of Racial Justice, 1984 S. Ct. Rev. 1, 57-58). See also 1 B. Lindemann & P. Grossman, Employment Discrimination Law 72 (3d ed. 1996) ("One of the most important aspects of competitive seniority is its use in determining who will be laid off during a reduction in force"). They include "an element of due process," limiting "unfairness in personnel decisions." Gersuny, Origins of Seniority Provisions in Collective Bargaining, 33 Lab. L. J. 518, 519 (1982). And they consequently encourage employees to invest in the employing company, accepting "less than their value to the firm early in their careers" in return for greater benefits in later years. J. Baron & D. Kreps, Strategic Human Resources: Frameworks for General Managers 288 (1999).
Most important for present purposes, to require the typical employer to show more than the existence of a seniority system might well undermine the employees' expectations of consistent, uniform treatment—expectations upon which the seniority system's benefits depend. That is because such a rule would substitute a complex case-specific "accommodation" decision made by management for the more uniform, impersonal operation of seniority rules. Such management
The plaintiff (here the employee) nonetheless remains free to show that special circumstances warrant a finding that, despite the presence of a seniority system (which the ADA may not trump in the run of cases), the requested "accommodation" is "reasonable" on the particular facts. That is because special circumstances might alter the important expectations described above. Cf. Borkowski, 63 F. 3d, at 137 ("[A]n accommodation that imposed burdens that would be unreasonable for most members of an industry might nevertheless be required of an individual defendant in light of that employer's particular circumstances"). See also Woodman v. Runyon,
In its question presented, US Airways asked us whether the ADA requires an employer to assign a disabled employee to a particular position even though another employee is entitled to that position under the employer's "established seniority system." We answer that ordinarily the ADA does not require that assignment. Hence, a showing that the assignment would violate the rules of a seniority system warrants summary judgment for the employer—unless there is more. The plaintiff must present evidence of that "more," namely, special circumstances surrounding the particular case that demonstrate the assignment is nonetheless reasonable.
Because the lower courts took a different view of the matter, and because neither party has had an opportunity to seek summary judgment in accordance with the principles we set forth here, we vacate the Court of Appeals' judgment and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.
Justice Stevens, concurring.
While I join the Court's opinion, my colleagues' separate writings prompt these additional comments.
A possible conflict with an employer's seniority system is relevant to the question whether a disabled employee's requested accommodation is "reasonable" within the meaning of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. For that
Although the Court of Appeals did not apply the standard that the Court endorses today, it correctly rejected the per se rule that petitioner has pressed upon us and properly reversed the District Court's entry of summary judgment for petitioner. The Court of Appeals also correctly held that there was a triable issue of fact precluding the entry of summary judgment with respect to whether petitioner violated the statute by failing to engage in an interactive process concerning respondent's three proposed accommodations.
Among the questions that I have not been able to answer on the basis of the limited record that has been presented to us are: (1) whether the mailroom position held by respondent became open for bidding merely in response to a routine airline schedule change,
Justice O'Connor, concurring.
I agree with portions of the opinion of the Court, but I find problematic the Court's test for determining whether the fact that a job reassignment violates a seniority system makes the reassignment an unreasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA or Act), 42 U. S. C. § 12101 et seq. (1994 ed. and Supp. V). Although a seniority system plays an important role in the workplace, for the reasons I explain below, I would prefer to say that the effect of a seniority system on the reasonableness of a reassignment as an accommodation for purposes of the ADA depends on whether the seniority system is legally enforceable. "Were it possible for me to adhere to [this belief] in my vote, and for the Court at the same time to [adopt a majority rule]," I would do so. Screws v. United States,
The ADA specifically lists "reassignment to a vacant position" as one example of a "reasonable accommodation." 42
Given this understanding of when a position can properly be considered vacant, if a seniority system, in the absence of the ADA, would give someone other than the individual seeking the accommodation a legal entitlement or contractual right to the position to which reassignment is sought, the seniority system prevents the position from being vacant. If a position is not vacant, then reassignment to it is not a reasonable accommodation. The Act specifically
Petitioner's Personnel Policy Guide for Agents, which contains its seniority policy, specifically states that it is "not intended to be a contract (express or implied) or otherwise to create legally enforceable obligations," and that petitioner "reserves the right to change any and all of the stated policies and procedures in [the] Guide at any time, without advanc[e] notice." Lodging of Respondent 2 (emphasis in original). Petitioner conceded at oral argument that its seniority policy does not give employees any legally enforceable rights. Tr. of Oral Arg. 16. Because the policy did not give any other employee a right to the position respondent sought, the position could be said to have been vacant when it became open for bidding, making the requested accommodation reasonable.
In Part II of its opinion, the Court correctly explains that "a plaintiff/employee (to defeat a defendant/employer's motion for summary judgment) need only show that an `accommodation' seems reasonable on its face, i. e., ordinarily or in the run of cases." Ante, at 401. In other words, the plaintiff must show that the method of accommodation the employee seeks is reasonable in the run of cases. See ante, at 402 (quoting Barth v. Gelb,
Although I am troubled by the Court's reasoning, I believe the Court's approach for evaluating seniority systems will often lead to the same outcome as the test I would have adopted. Unenforceable seniority systems are likely to involve policies in which employers "retai[n] the right to change the seniority system," ante, at 405, and will often "contai[n] exceptions," ibid. They will also often contain disclaimers that "reduc[e] employee expectations that the system will be followed." Ibid. Thus, under the Court's test, disabled employees seeking accommodations that would require exceptions to unenforceable seniority systems may be able to show circumstances that make the accommodation "reasonable in the[ir] particular case." Ante, at 406. Because I think the Court's test will often lead to the correct outcome, and because I think it important that a majority of the Court agree on a rule when interpreting statutes, I join the Court's opinion.
Justice Scalia, with whom Justice Thomas joins, dissenting.
The question presented asks whether the "reasonable accommodation" mandate of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA or Act) requires reassignment of a disabled employee to a position that "another employee is entitled
The principal defect of today's opinion, however, goes well beyond the uncertainty it produces regarding the relationship between the ADA and the infinite variety of seniority systems. The conclusion that any seniority system can ever be overridden is merely one consequence of a mistaken interpretation of the ADA that makes all employment rules and practices—even those which (like a seniority system) pose no distinctive obstacle to the disabled—subject to suspension when that is (in a court's view) a "reasonable" means of enabling a disabled employee to keep his job. That is a far cry from what I believe the accommodation provision of the ADA requires: the suspension (within reason) of those employment rules and practices that the employee's disability prevents him from observing.
The Court begins its analysis by describing the ADA as declaring that an employer may not "`discriminate against a qualified individual with a disability.' " Ante, at 396 (quoting 42 U. S. C. § 12112(a) (1994 ed.)). In fact the Act says more: an employer may not "discriminate against a qualified individual with a disability because of the disability of such individual." 42 U. S. C. § 12112(a) (1994 ed.) (emphasis added). It further provides that discrimination includes "not making reasonable accommodations to the known physi-
Read together, these provisions order employers to modify or remove (within reason) policies and practices that burden a disabled person "because of [his] disability." In other words, the ADA eliminates workplace barriers only if a disability prevents an employee from overcoming them—those barriers that would not be barriers but for the employee's disability. These include, for example, work stations that cannot accept the employee's wheelchair, or an assembly-line practice that requires long periods of standing. But they do not include rules and practices that bear no more heavily upon the disabled employee than upon others—even though an exemption from such a rule or practice might in a sense "make up for" the employee's disability. It is not a required accommodation, for example, to pay a disabled employee more than others at his grade level—even if that increment is earmarked for massage or physical therapy that would enable the employee to work with as little physical discomfort as his co-workers. That would be "accommodating" the disabled employee, but it would not be "making . . . accommodatio[n] to the known physical or mental limitations " of the employee, § 12112(b)(5)(A), because it would not eliminate any workplace practice that constitutes an obstacle because of his disability.
So also with exemption from a seniority system, which burdens the disabled and nondisabled alike. In particular cases, seniority rules may have a harsher effect upon the disabled employee than upon his co-workers. If the disabled employee is physically capable of performing only one task in the workplace, seniority rules may be, for him, the difference between employment and unemployment. But that does not make the seniority system a disability-related obstacle, any more than harsher impact upon the more needy disabled employee renders the salary system a disability-related obstacle. When one departs from this understanding, the
Some courts, including the Ninth Circuit in the present case, have accepted respondent's contention that the ADA demands accommodation even with respect to those obstacles that have nothing to do with the disability. Their principal basis for this position is that the definition of "reasonable accommodation" includes "reassignment to a vacant position." § 12111(9)(B). This accommodation would be meaningless, they contend, if it required only that the disabled employee be considered for a vacant position. The ADA already prohibits employers from discriminating against the disabled with respect to "hiring, advancement, or discharge . . . and other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment." § 12112(a). Surely, the argument goes, a disabled employee must be given preference over a nondisabled employee when a vacant position appears. See Smith v. Midland Brake, Inc.,
This argument seems to me quite mistaken. The right to be given a vacant position so long as there are no obstacles to that appointment (including another candidate who is better qualified, if "best qualified" is the workplace rule) is of considerable value. If an employee is hired to fill a position but fails miserably, he will typically be fired. Few employers will search their organization charts for vacancies
The phrase "reassignment to a vacant position" appears in a subsection describing a variety of potential "reasonable accommodation[s]":
Subsection (A) clearly addresses features of the workplace that burden the disabled because of their disabilities. Subsection (B) is broader in scope but equally targeted at disability-related obstacles. Thus it encompasses "modified work schedules" (which may accommodate inability to work for protracted periods), "modification of equipment and devices," and "provision of qualified readers or interpreters."
Unsurprisingly, most Courts of Appeals addressing the issue have held or assumed that the ADA does not mandate exceptions to a "legitimate, nondiscriminatory policy" such as a seniority system or a consistent policy of assigning the most qualified person to a vacant position. See, e. g., EEOC v. Sara Lee Corp.,
Even the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in at least some of its regulations, acknowledges that the ADA clears away only obstacles arising from a person's disability and nothing more. According to the agency, the term "reasonable accommodation" means
See also 29 CFR pt. 1630, App. § 1630.9, at 364 ("reasonable accommodation requirement is best understood as a means by which barriers to . . . equal employment opportunity . . . are removed or alleviated").
Sadly, this analysis is lost on the Court, which mistakenly and inexplicably concludes, ante, at 398, that my position here is the same as that attributed to US Airways. In rejecting the argument that the ADA creates no "automatic exemption" for neutral workplace rules such as "breakfrom-work"
Although, as I have said, the uncertainty cast upon bona fide seniority systems is the least of the ill consequences produced by today's decision, a few words on that subject are nonetheless in order. Since, under the Court's interpretation of the ADA, all workplace rules are eligible to be used as vehicles of accommodation, the one means of saving seniority systems is a judicial finding that accommodation through the suspension of those workplace rules would be unreasonable. The Court is unwilling, however, to make that finding categorically, with respect to all seniority systems. Instead, it creates (and "creates" is the appropriate word) a rebuttable presumption that exceptions to seniority rules are not "reasonable" under the ADA, but leaves it free for the disabled employee to show that under the "special circumstances" of his case, an exception would be "reasonable." Ante, at 405. The employee would be entitled to an exception, for example, if he showed that "one more departure" from the seniority rules "will not likely make a difference." Ibid.
I have no idea what this means. When is it possible for a departure from seniority rules to "not likely make a difference"? Even when a bona fide seniority system has multiple exceptions, employees expect that these are the only exceptions. One more unannounced exception will invariably undermine the values ("fair, uniform treatment," "job security," "predictable advancement," etc.) that the Court cites as its reasons for believing seniority systems so important that they merit a presumption of exemption. See ante, at 404.
One is tempted to impart some rationality to the scheme by speculating that the Court's burden-shifting rule is
I must conclude, then, that the Court's rebuttable presumption does not merely give disabled employees the opportunity to unmask sham seniority systems; it gives them a vague and unspecified power (whenever they can show "special circumstances") to undercut bona fide systems. The Court claims that its new test will not require exceptions to seniority systems "in the run of cases," ante, at 403, but that is belied by the disposition of this case. The Court remands to give respondent an opportunity to show that an exception to petitioner's seniority system "will not likely make a difference" to employee expectations, ante, at 405, despite the following finding by the District Court:
* * *
Justice Souter, with whom Justice Ginsburg joins, dissenting.
"[R]eassignment to a vacant position," 42 U. S. C. § 12111(9) (1994 ed.), is one way an employer may "reasonabl[y] accommodat[e]" disabled employees under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), 42 U. S. C. § 12101 et seq. (1994 ed. and Supp. V). The Court today holds that a request for reassignment will nonetheless most likely be unreasonable when it would violate the terms of a seniority system imposed by an employer. Although I concur in the Court's appreciation of the value and importance of seniority systems, I do not believe my hand is free to accept the majority's result and therefore respectfully dissent.
Nothing in the ADA insulates seniority rules from the "reasonable accommodation" requirement, in marked contrast to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, each of which has an explicit protection for seniority. See 42 U. S. C. § 2000e—2(h) (1994 ed.) ("Notwithstanding any other provision of this subchapter, it shall not be an unlawful employment practice for an employer to [provide different benefits to employees] pursuant to a bona fide seniority . . . system . . ."); 29 U. S. C. § 623(f) (1994 ed.) ("It shall not be unlawful for an employer . . . to take any action otherwise prohibited [under previous sections] . . . to observe the terms of a bona fide seniority system [except for involuntary retirement] . . ."). Because Congress modeled several of the
In any event, the statute's legislative history resolves the ambiguity. The Committee Reports from both the House of Representatives and the Senate explain that seniority protections contained in a collective-bargaining agreement should not amount to more than "a factor" when it comes to deciding whether some accommodation at odds with the seniority rules is "reasonable" nevertheless. H. R. Rep. No. 101-485, pt. 2, p. 63 (1990) (existence of collectively bargained protections for seniority "would not be determinative" on the issue whether an accommodation was reasonable); S. Rep. No. 101-116, p. 32 (1989) (a collectivebargaining agreement assigning jobs based on seniority "may be considered as a factor in determining" whether an accommodation is reasonable). Here, of course, it does not matter whether the congressional committees were right or wrong in thinking that views of sound ADA application could reduce a collectively bargained seniority policy to the level of "a factor," in the absence of a specific statutory provision to that effect. In fact, I doubt that any interpretive clue in legislative history could trump settled law specifically making collective-bargaining agreements enforceable. See, e. g., § 301(a), Labor Management Relations Act, 1947, 29 U. S. C. § 185(a) (permitting suit in federal court to enforce collective-bargaining agreements); Textile Workers v. Lincoln Mills of Ala.,
This legislative history also specifically rules out the majority's reliance on Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison,
He held the mailroom job for two years before learning that employees with greater seniority planned to bid for the position, given US Airways's decision to declare the job "vacant." Thus, perhaps unlike ADA claimants who request accommodation through reassignment, Barnett was seeking not a change but a continuation of the status quo. All he asked was that US Airways refrain from declaring the position "vacant"; he did not ask to bump any other employee and no one would have lost a job on his account. There was no evidence in the District Court of any unmanageable ripple effects from Barnett's request, or showing that he would have overstepped an inordinate number of seniority levels by remaining where he was.
In fact, it is hard to see the seniority scheme here as any match for Barnett's ADA requests, since US Airways apparently took pains to ensure that its seniority rules raised no great expectations. In its policy statement, US Airways said that "[t]he Agent Personnel Policy Guide is not intended to be a contract" and that "USAir reserves the right to change any and all of the stated policies and procedures in this Guide at any time, without advanced notice." Lodging of Respondent 2 (emphasis in original). While I will skip any state-by-state analysis of the legal treatment of employee handbooks (a source of many lawyers' fees) it is safe to say that the contract law of a number of jurisdictions would treat this disclaimer as fatal to any claim an employee
With US Airways itself insisting that its seniority system was noncontractual and modifiable at will, there is no reason to think that Barnett's accommodation would have resulted in anything more than minimal disruption to US Airways's operations, if that. Barnett has shown his requested accommodation to be "reasonable," and the burden ought to shift to US Airways if it wishes to claim that, in spite of surface appearances, violation of the seniority scheme would have worked an undue hardship. I would therefore affirm the Ninth Circuit.
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