US AIRWAYS, INC. v. BARNETT
535 U.S. 391 (2002)
US AIRWAYS, INC.
United States Supreme Court.
Argued December 4, 2001.
Decided April 29, 2002.
CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT
Breyer, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Stevens, O'Connor, and Kennedy, JJ., joined. Stevens, J., post, p. 406, and O'Connor, J., post, p. 408, filed concurring opinions. Scalia, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Thomas, J., joined, post, p. 411. Souter, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Ginsburg, J., joined, post, p. 420.
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.*
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
seniority system. In such a case, does the accommodation demand trump the seniority system?
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).I
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
against him. US Airways moved for summary judgment. It supported its motion with appropriate affidavits, Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 56, 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. 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: