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December 06, 2001
Justices Hear Accommodation-vs.-Seniority Case
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U.S. Supreme Court, in the second of three cases it will decide this term under the Americans with Disabilities Act, heard arguments Wednesday on the meaning of "reasonable accommodation."

It was not reasonable, a lawyer for US Airways told the court, to require an employer to override the company's usual seniority system to accommodate the needs of a worker with a disability.

The New York Times reports that the airline is appealing a federal appeals court decision that it might have violated the ADA by following the seniority system.

The airline, citing seniority, did not permit an injured cargo handler who could no longer lift heavy parcels to extend his temporary stay in a less taxing mailroom position.

The appeals court, the San Francisco-based Ninth Circuit, ruled last year that the question of which concern has a higher priority -- accommodation or seniority - should be answered case by case.

On that basis, it ruled that the US Airways worker, Robert Barnett, was entitled to take his case to trial.

US Airways lawyer Walter E. Dellinger asked the justices Wednesday for a "bright-line rule" that would insulate a neutral employment policy like a seniority system from alteration to meet a disabled worker's needs, according to the Times.

In adopting the law in 1990, Congress "would have thought long and debated hard before saying that the employer could not at the end of the day choose the employee who is best qualified or most senior," Dellinger said.

But Claudia Center, arguing on Barnett's behalf, said the airline interpretation of the law "vitiates the statute." The law's reference to a "reasonable accommodation" means "reasonable to the employee - a modification that enables the disabled person to participate," she said.

She added that the law took account of the needs of the employer and co-workers by providing the "undue hardship" defense.

Center continued that the employer's interests are not a factor at the initial stage of deciding what is reasonable, she said, noting that Congress included "reassignment to a vacant position" on a list of potentially reasonable accommodations in the statute itself.

According to the Times, the mailroom position was vacant when Barnett was temporarily assigned to it after a 1992 back injury, which had left him permanently unable to handle cargo.

But under the US Airways system, all 14,000 jobs in the customer service department, which includes the cargo warehouse and the mailroom, are open for bidding every three months. After two employees with more seniority said they wanted to transfer to the mailroom, the airline told Barnett, whose 10 years' seniority entitled him to just the cargo position that he could no longer perform, that it could not accommodate his needs.

He sued and lost in Federal District Court in San Francisco, which awarded summary judgment to US Airways on the ground that an employer's failure to alter a legitimate seniority system did not violate the law. That ruling was upheld by a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit, but was overturned, on an 8-to-3 vote, by a larger panel of the appeals court.

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