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Supreme Court Rules Seniority Higher Priority Than Disability

By David G. Savage

Disabled employees who say they need a less demanding job generally do not have a right to bump workers with more seniority, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.

The 5-4 ruling resolves a conflict created by the Americans with Disabilities Act, the 1990 law that said workers with a physical or mental impairment have a right to work so long as they can do so with a “reasonable accommodation” by their employers.

At the same time, the law said this accommodation must not put an “undue burden” on the employer.

Employers say they should not have to bump more senior workers in favor of a disabled employee, and the Supreme Court largely agreed.

“In our view, the seniority system will prevail in the run of cases,” wrote Justice Stephen G. Breyer for the court. “Ordinarily, the ADA does not require ... an employer to assign a disabled employee to a particular position even though another employee is entitled to that position under the employer’s established seniority system.”

But there are exceptions to this general rule, Breyer added. If, for example, seniority is not generally followed in assigning jobs, an employer cannot rely on the seniority system as a reason for refusing to place a disabled employee there, the court said.

Monday’s ruling is the third in the last few years to limit the reach of the ADA.

Two years ago, the court ruled that employees with treatable diseases or medical conditions, such as diabetes or extremely high blood pressure, are not disabled, even if they are fired because of these impairments.

In January, the court said the hundreds of thousands of workers with carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive stress injuries generally are also not disabled, as long as they can carry on the ordinary tasks of daily life.