Seniority System Prevails Over Requested ADA Accommodation

September 27, 2006

In April 2006, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals – the federal appellate court covering Texas – in Medrano v. City of San Antonio, Texas, vindicated an employer’s rights to enforce its seniority system over an employee’s right to an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accommodation.

The plaintiff, Christopher Medrano, worked as a part-time parking attendant at the San Antonio airport while suffering with cerebral palsy. Although he lacked seniority, Medrano was given a referential first-shift assignment that accommodated his dependence on a special bus system. The bus system was available to San Antonio residents, with qualifying disabilities under the ADA. Medrano eventually applied for a full-time parking attendant position after the City eliminated the position of part-time parking attendant. Medrano was denied the full-time position after the interview because he requested the preferential first shift as an accommodation.

The ADA prohibits employers with fifteen or more employees from discriminating against an individual with an actual or perceived disability that substantially impairs that individual’s ability to perform major life activities. Further, an employer, in certain circumstances, must provide reasonable accommodations for qualified individuals with disabilities. Medrano’s case was analyzed to determine if his request for accommodation under the ADA was reasonable when it conflicted with the employer’s seniority system.

Medrano relied heavily on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in U.S. Airways v. Barnett. In U.S. Airways, the Court held that if an employer’s seniority system conflicts with an employee’s request for accommodation under the ADA, the mere existence of the seniority system usually will be enough to show that the accommodation is unreasonable. However, U.S. Airways created an exception to this general rule that permits a court to find that “special circumstances” trump a seniority policy in certain cases.

Medrano attempted to establish “special circumstances” by arguing that his employer made the accommodation during his employment in the part-time position and thus, should make the same accommodation for the full-time position. The Court disagreed and held that the job classifications (Part-time Parking Attendant/Full-time Parking Attendant) constituted separate job classifications under the City’s seniority policy.

This ruling reinforces the rule that an employee has the burden of showing “special circum-stances” that establish the reasonableness of making an exception to an employer’s seniority system. Medrano would have prevailed if he had presented evidence that the City frequently deviated from its policy for full-time employees.

Employers must be careful not to make exceptions to their seniority policy. Employers that make frequent exceptions to their seniority policy may be required to consider making an exception for a reasonable accommodation request.

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