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US Airways, Inc. v. Barnett
Court says ADA does not take precedence over seniority systems

On April 29, 2002, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that employees with disabilities are not always entitled to jobs intended for workers with more seniority. The decision is another one in a series of rulings in which the Court has sided with employers instead of workers with disabilities.

Read the Supreme Court decision

Robert Barnett, a former US Airways baggage handler from San Francisco, injured his back while on the job. At his doctor's suggestion, Barnett was reassigned to the mail room. The company later told Barnett that, according to company policy, he would have to give up that job to make room for another employee that had more seniority.

Barnett sued US Airways claiming the company had not given him a reasonable accommodation as required under the ADA. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Barnett that workers with disabilities should have priority over more senior workers who do not have disabilities. Monday's 5-4 decision overturned the Court of Appeals ruling and sent the case back for further review.

The court did say that workers can show "special circumstances'' that would make exceptions reasonable, but that this has to be done on an individual basis.

The ruling was "made all the more complicated by a total of four different concurring and dissenting opinions," writes Prof. Ruth O'Brien, author of Crippled Justice: The History of Modern Disability Policy in the Workplace (University of Chicago Press, 2001). Read O'Brien's article from Ragged Edge magazine.


The experts on disability rights law listed below can discuss disability rights cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Peter David Blanck
(319) 335-9043
Peter David Blanck is a Professor of Law and of Psychology at the University of Iowa and concentrates much of his research on the Americans with Disabilities Act. Blanck is a Commissioner on the American Bar Association Commission on Mental and Physical Disability Law and a former President of the American Association on Mental Retardation's Legal Process and Advocacy Division. The U.S. District Court for the State of Wyoming appointed Blanck to the Compliance Advisory Board, which oversees the development of community, educational, and employment services for people with mental disabilities in the state. He received his Ph.D. in Psychology from Harvard University and his J.D. from Stanford Law School where he was President of the Stanford Law Review.

Robert Burgdorf, Jr.
(202) 274-7334
Professor Burgdorf teaches Constitutional Law, Civil Procedure, and the Disabilities Rights Seminar at the David Clark School of Law at the University of the District of Columbia. He also co-directs the Legislation Clinic. Professor Burgdorf has been active in securing equal rights for persons with disabilities, most recently through his work on the federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1991. He has held positions with various groups, including Project ACTION (Accessible Community Transportation in Our Nation), the National Council on the Handicapped, and the National Center for Law and the Handicapped. From 1976 to 1981, he co-directed the University of Maryland School of Law's Developmental Disabilities Law Project. Professor Burgdorf has published a casebook and numerous articles and reports in his field. He recently completed a legal treatise on disability discrimination in employment law for the Bureau of National Affairs.

Ruth Colker
(614) 292-0900
Ohio State University Professor Colker is one of the leading scholars in the country in the areas of Constitutional Law and Disability Discrimination. She is the author of five books, two of which have won book prizes. She has also published more than 50 articles in law journals such as the Harvard Law Review, Yale Law Journal, Columbia Law Journal, and University of Michigan Law Journal. She has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio to comment on disability and constitutional law topics. Before joining the faculty at Ohio State, Professor Colker taught at Tulane University, the University of Toronto, the University of Pittsburgh and in the women's studies graduate program at George Washington University. She also spent four years working as a trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice where she received two awards for outstanding performance

Matthew Diller
(212) 636-6980
Professor Diller is Associate Director, Louis Stein Center for Law and Ethics; Scholar in Residence, Brennan Center for Justice, NYU School of Law, Fall 1999; The Legal Aid Society, 1986-93; Adjunct Assistant Professor of Law, New York University School of Law, Fall 1989, Spring 1993; Law Clerk to the late Hon. Walter R. Mansfield, United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, 1985-1986; Principal subjects: Civil Procedure, Administrative Law, Social Welfare Law, Seminar in Ethics and Public Interest Law.

Chai R. Feldblum
(202) 662-9595
Professor of Law; Director, Federal Legislation Clinic Expertise: federal legislation, disability rights, gay and lesbian rights, AIDS, privacy, welfare and Medicaid reform. Professor Feldblum joined the faculty as a visiting professor for the 1991-93 academic years. In 1993, she established a new law school clinic, the Federal Legislation Clinic, and has served as the Clinic's Director since 1993. Prior to joining the law faculty, Professor Feldblum worked as a legislative counsel at the AIDS Action Council, and at the ACLU AIDS Project, focusing on federal legislation concerning AIDS. She clerked for First Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Frank M. Coffin in 1985, and for Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun in 1986. >From 1989-90, Professor Feldblum played a leading role in the drafting and negotiating of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a law that prohibits discrimination based on disability. She has also worked extensively in advancing gay and lesbian rights, particularly in the drafting of the Employment Nondiscrimination Act. Professor Feldblum engages in scholarly work and practical advocacy in the areas of disability rights, lesbian and gay rights, and health and social welfare legislation.

Read more on the meaning of "disability" under ADA.






Expert sources

From the Disability and Business Technical Assistance Centers:

Historical Context of the ADA

ADA definition of disability

Overview of law's structure

The ADA is changing the landscape of America -- commentary

"The ADA changed my life" -- personal stories

The meaning of "disability" under ADA

"A misunderstood law" -- commentary

The ADA Notification Act

Supreme Court ADA decisions:

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