Fifth Circuit Says No Nexus Required Between Reasonable Accommodation And Essential Functions

by Pierce Atwood LLP
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The vast majority of requests for accommodation aim to help an employee to perform the essential functions of his or her job.  As a result, a large body of case law has developed, defining reasonable accommodations as changes to the workplace that allow employees to perform job functions that, because of a disability, they would otherwise be unable to perform.   In a recent opinion, however, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the Americans with Disabilities Act’s definition of “reasonable accommodation” is not limited to modifications that facilitate job performance.   Under the Fifth Circuit’s analysis in Feist v. State of Louisiana, employers may be obligated to provide accommodations unrelated to the “essential functions” of the job—such as free on-site parking—if necessary to provide an employee with equal access to or benefits and privileges of employment.

In Feist, the plaintiff was an assistant attorney general with osteoarthritis who apparently struggled to walk from the assigned employee parking area to the workplace.  After her employer, the Louisiana Department of Justice (LDOJ), denied her request for free on-site parking, Feist sued, alleging (among other things) that the LDOJ violated the ADA by failing to provide her with reasonable accommodation for her disability.  The trial court granted the LDOJ’s motion for summary judgment, holding there was no evidence the employer’s denial of Feist’s request for on-site parking limited or interfered with her ability to perform the essential functions of her job.  Feist appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, where she and amici, including the Advocacy Center and Disability Rights Texas, argued the obligation to provide reasonable accommodation under the ADA is not limited to modifications related to the essential functions of the job.  The Fifth Circuit agreed with Feist.

The ADA contains a two-pronged definition of “reasonable accommodation.”  First, reasonable accommodation includes “making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities.”  This prong is typically applied to require physical modifications to the workplace; but the Fifth Circuit noted that reserved on-site parking “would presumably have made [the plaintiff’s] workplace ‘readily accessible to and usable by’ her . . . .”   Second, the ADA provides a list of modifications, including but not limited to, job restructuring, modified work schedules, reassignment to a vacant position, acquisition or modification of equipment or devices, training materials, etc; and says that “reasonable accommodation” includes “other similar accommodations.”

The ADA’s implementing regulations provide that reasonable accommodation includes: (1) modifications to the application process that enable a qualified applicant with a disability to be considered for the position sought; or (2) modifications to the work environment that enable a qualified individual with a disability to perform the essential functions of that position; or (3) modifications that enable a qualified individual with a disability “to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment as are enjoyed by . . . other similarly situated employees without disabilities.”  29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(o)(1)(emphasis supplied.)  Relying on the third prong of the regulatory definition and EEOC guidance—which expressly provides that “reserved parking spaces” may be a reasonable accommodation—the court held the ADA does not require a nexus between the requested accommodation and the essential functions of the job and the LDOJ therefore may have had an obligation to grant Feist’s request for free on-site parking.  Whether Feist was in fact entitled to the parking as a reasonable accommodation is an open question that will be decided by the trial court or fact finder.

The scope of employers’ duty to provide reasonable accommodation under the ADA will continue to be the subject of litigation and, therefore, a gray area.  On the one hand, it’s relatively well settled that employers need not provide “personal use” items or amenities (i.e. things needed in accomplishing daily activities both on and off the job).  On the other hand, according to the regulations and Feist, employees are entitled to reasonable accommodations that provide equal access to the benefits and privileges of employment, a concept that is unquestionably broader than employees’ ability to come to work and do their jobs.  While employers and counsel continue to wrestle with the contours of the obligation to provide reasonable accommodation, Feist teaches that employers should avoid analyzing requests for accommodation solely in light of whether they will facilitate job performance.   Employers who, without careful consideration, reject requests for accommodation only loosely connected to the workplace risk running afoul of the ADA.

 

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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