5TH CIRCUIT: ACCOMMODATIONS NOT LIMITED TO ESSENTIAL FUNCTIONS

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The United States Court Of Appeals For The Fifth Circuit has ruled that reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) are not limited to essential job functions.   This ruling is consistent with U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidance.

The case is Pauline G. Feist v State Of Louisiana.

Pauline G. Feist, a former assistant attorney general for the Louisiana Department of Justice (LDOJ), claims that LDOJ (1) discriminated against her in violation of the ADA by declining to provide a free on-site parking space to accommodate her disability (osteoarthritis of the knee), and (2) violated the ADA and Title VII by terminating her employment in retaliation for charges she filed with the EEOC.

The district court granted summary judgment on Feist’s discrimination claim, holding that she failed to explain how the denial of on-site parking limited her ability to perform the essential functions of her job.  Feist appealed, arguing that the ADA does not require a link between a requested accommodation and an essential job function.

The district court also granted LDOJ’s motion for summary judgment on Feist’s retaliation claim, finding that Feist was dismissed for poor performance and holding that Feist produced no evidence that, but for a retaliatory motive, LDOJ would not have dismissed her.  Feist appealed, claiming that she had evidence that any performance-based justification was mere pretext, intended to disguise the retaliatory dismissal.

Because the Circuit Court found an error in the district court’s analysis of the discrimination claim, it vacated summary judgment on the discrimination claim, but affirmed on the retaliation claim, finding that LDOJ would have terminated her for mistakes on the job in the absence of the ADA claim.

 The ADA prohibits covered employers from discriminating against a qualified individual on the basis of disability.  Discrimination includes failure to make reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability, unless the covered entity can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship.  Thus, a plaintiff must prove the following statutory elements to prevail in a failure-to-accommodate claim: (1) the plaintiff is a qualified individual with a disability; (2) the disability and its consequential limitations were known by the covered employer; and (3) the employer failed to make reasonable accommodations for the known limitations.

The district court found that Feist is a qualified individual with a disability and that the disability was known by the employer, and the parties did not dispute these findings.  Consequently, the sole question on appeal was whether the district court applied the correct legal standard in determining whether Feist’s proposed accommodation was reasonable.  The court held that Feist could not show the proposal reasonable because she did not allege or demonstrate that the parking situation limited her ability to perform the essential functions of her job.  The LDOJ urged the Circuit Court to affirm the district court’s interpretation.  Feist, however, pointed out that reasonable accommodations are not restricted to modifications that enable performance of essential job functions.

The 5th Circuit ruled that the language of the ADA, and all available interpretive authority, indicate that Feist is correct.

Under the ADA, a reasonable accommodation may include:

(A) making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities; and

(B) job restructuring, part-time or modified work schedules, reassignment to a vacant position, acquisition or modification of equipment or devices, appropriate adjustment or modifications of examinations, training materials or policies, the provision of qualified readers or interpreters, and other similar accommodations for individuals with disabilities.

The text thus gives no indication that an accommodation must facilitate the essential functions of one’s position.  Moreover, the requested reserved on-site parking would presumably have made her workplace readily accessible to and usable by her, and therefore might have been a potentially reasonable accommodation.

The ADA’s implementing regulations also indicate that reasonable accommodation need not relate to the performance of essential job functions.  A modification that enables an individual to perform the essential functions of a position is only one of three categories of reasonable accommodation under the regulations.  Moreover, EEOC guidance explicitly provides that providing reserved parking spaces may constitute reasonable accommodation under some circumstances.

Therefore, because the district court erred in requiring a nexus between the requested accommodation and the essential functions of Feist’s position, the 5th Circuit vacated the judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings.  The Circuit Court expressed no opinion as to whether the proposed accommodation was reasonable.

 Employers should be aware that reasonable accommodations may include things not specifically related to the essential functions of a job, such as making certain parking spaces available in order to make the worksite more accessible.

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