High Court Narrows Scope of Disabilities Act

In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act does not give disabled workers special preference for positions for which more senior employees may also be qualified.

But the court also said that if workers show “special circumstances,” legitimate exceptions to an employer’s seniority system could be made.

Signed into law in 1990, the ADA is a wide-ranging legislation intended to make society more accessible to people with disabilities. It prohibits job discrimination against the disabled and requires employers to make reasonable workplace accommodations.

Monday’s decision addressed the case of Robert Barnett, a U.S. Airways employee who suffered a back injury from his job loading baggage at the San Francisco International Airport in 1990. Barnett was re-assigned to a position in the mailroom, but later two employees with more seniority requested the same position. Under the U.S. Airways seniority system, he could be moved to a less desirable job.

Barnett sued in 1994 under the ADA and won in lower courts. The Ninth Circuit Court originally ruled that employers can not use seniority policies to elude making accommodation for disabled workers.

Monday’s Supreme Court decision sends the case back to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for further review.

“In our view, the seniority system will prevail in the run of cases,” explained Justice Stephen Breyer who wrote the ruling opinion. Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy joined Breyer in an unusual alliance of liberal and conservative justices.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the court should have taken a stronger stance in protecting employers from future lawsuits over seniority policies. In two separate filings, Justices Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter also dissented.

This ruling is the second during the current Supreme Court term that has narrowed the scope of the ADA. In January, the court ruled unanimously that an autoworker with carpal tunnel syndrome did not qualify for protection under the act.

According to the Associated Press, Justice O’Connor said in March that the current term could be remembered as the “disabilities act term” for all of the cases pertaining to the law.

The court is currently considering another ADA case that asks whether an employer can exclude a worker from a job that could jeopardize his health.