Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Fifth Circuit Rules "Reasonable Accommodations" Need Not Assist with an Essential Job Function

A "reasonable accommodation" under the Americans with Disabilities Act, as amended (ADA), should assist an employee with performing the essential functions of the job, right?

Not really, according to the Fifth Circuit's recent opinion, Feist v. State of Louisiana, No. 12-31065, issued on September 16, 2013.  In that case, an employee claimed her employer discriminated against her based on a disability by declining to provide a free, on-site parking space to accommodate her osteoarthritis.  The employer's rationale was that the denial of the parking space did not limit the employee's ability to perform the essential functions of the job.  The District Court agreed with the employer, but the Fifth Circuit vacated the decision on this issue and remanded the case.

Why is this decision so interesting?

Because it appears to contradict older, but not yet superseded, Guidance issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Specifically, the EEOC's Enforcement Guidance, Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship under the Americans with Disabilities Act, dated October 17, 2002, provides, "An accommodation also must be effective in meeting the needs of the individual.  In the context of job performance, this means that a reasonable accommodation enables the individual to perform the essential functions of the position." (Emphasis added).  

Ignoring the EEOC's 2002 Guidance, the Fifth Circuit instead chose to focus on the statute's definition of a "reasonable accommodation," which includes "making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities."  In so doing, it noted that the ADA "provides no indication that an accommodation must facilitate the essential functions of one's position."  

What is the practical implication of this ruling?

Think twice before denying an employee's request for a reasonable accommodation, particularly one that does not appear to be related to the employee's ability to perform the essential functions of the job.