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LegalSpeak: U.S. Airways v. Barnett (2002)

Disability Discrimination Read more from
Chapter Employment Law

Justice Steven Breyer (majority): “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.”

Justice Antonin Scalia (dissenting): “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.

Justice David Souter (dissenting): “Because a unilaterally-imposed seniority system enjoys no special protection under the ADA, a consideration of facts peculiar to this very case is needed to gauge whether Barnett has carried the burden of showing his proposed accommodation to be a ‘reasonable’ one despite the policy in force at US Airways. The majority describes this as a burden to show the accommodation is ‘plausible’ or ‘feasible,’ ante, at 10, and I believe Barnett has met it.”

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