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ADA doesn't trump seniority system: High court


WASHINGTON--The Americans with Disabilities Act does not override company seniority systems under most circumstances, a sharply divided Supreme Court ruled Monday.

At issue in US Airways Inc. vs. Robert Barnett was whether the ADA gave Mr. Barnett precedence over workers with more seniority when he sought to keep a mailroom job he'd been transferred to after injuring his back in another position. Mr. Barnett lost the mailroom job when workers with more seniority applied for it, and in 1994 he sued his employer under the ADA. Eventually, the case went before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that US Airways couldn't deny Mr. Barnett the job on the grounds that allowing him to stay in the position would undermine the company's seniority system. US Airways appealed to the Supreme Court.

Writing for the majority in the 5-4 decision, Associate Justice Stephen Breyer said, "the seniority system will prevail in the run of cases." He added, however, that "special circumstances surrounding the particular case" could make bypassing a seniority system permissible and remanded Mr. Barnett's claim to a lower court.

The decision drew two dissenting opinions. In one, Associate Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas argued that the decision did not give employers enough protection in such cases. The other dissent, filed by Associate Justices David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, argued that the majority had not given workers enough protection.

Meanwhile, in a case of interest to insurers and policyholders in California, the justices refused to review a California appeals court's ruling in 20th Century Insurance Co. vs. Superior Court of California. That decision upheld a state law extending the period for refiling claims stemming from the 1994 Northridge earthquake.