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Accommodation Request Need Not Be Tied to Essential Job Function

By Christine M. White and Lindsey M. Johnson  10/17/2013

Reasonable accommodations are not restricted to modifications that enable a worker to perform essential job functions, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled.

Former assistant attorney general of the Louisiana Department of Justice (LDOJ) Pauline G. Feist filed suit against the LDOJ, claiming her former employer violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by refusing to grant her request for a free onsite-parking space to accommodate her disability, osteoarthritis of the knee. To prevail in a failure-to-accommodate claim, the plaintiff must prove that she is disabled and that the employer failed to make reasonable accommodations for her known limitations. In this case, the district court found that Feist was disabled and that the LDOJ knew about her disability, but that Feist failed to show that her proposed accommodation was reasonable. Specifically, the district court explained that the plaintiff failed to demonstrate how the department’s denial of the onsite parking space limited her ability to perform the essential functions of her job. Consequently, the court dismissed Feist’s discrimination claim.

Feist appealed the district court’s decision, arguing that the ADA does not require her to show a link between her requested accommodation and an essential job function. The 5th Circuit agreed, ruling that the plaintiff need not show how the proposed accommodation enables the performance of an essential job function in order to show the accommodation is “reasonable” per the ADA’s meaning.

The appellate court based its decision on the language of the ADA and its interpretive authority. First, the court looked to the text of the act itself, noting it did not specify that an accommodation must facilitate the essential functions of a disabled person’s position. To the contrary, the court pointed out, under the ADA a reasonable accommodation may include “making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities.” Based on this language, the court reasoned that providing Feist with onsite parking would presumably make her workplace “readily accessible to and usable” for her and might, therefore, constitute a reasonable accommodation.  

Next, the court explained that the ADA’s own implementing regulations list “a modification that enables an individual to perform the essential functions of a position” as only one of three categories of reasonable accommodations. The court was also persuaded by Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidance suggesting that “providing reserved parking spaces” may constitute a reasonable accommodation under some circumstances. 

Thus, the court held that the lower court incorrectly imposed a requirement that Feist demonstrate that her requested accommodation relate to an essential function of her position. Accordingly, the appellate court vacated the district court’s judgment on her discrimination claim and remanded the case for further proceedings. Notably, the 5th Circuit declined to rule whether the free onsite parking space was, in fact, a reasonable accommodation under the circumstances of this case.

Feist v. Louisiana, 5th Cir., No. 12-31065 (Sept. 16, 2013).

Professional Pointer: Based on this opinion, employers must now broaden their consideration of whether a requested accommodation is reasonable under the circumstances and cannot consider a request unreasonable based solely on a finding that the accommodation does not relate to an employee’s essential job functions. At a minimum, employers must now also consider whether an employee’s requests related to accessibility to or usability of their workplace may be requests for reasonable accommodations under the ADA.

Christine M. White and Lindsey M. Johnson are attorneys in the New Orleans office of Ogletree Deakins, an international labor and employment law firm representing management. 

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