The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled in Feist v. State of Louisiana, that a “reasonable accommodation” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), does not need to “relate to the performance of essential job functions.” In reversing the district court, the Court of Appeals held that an accommodation could be reasonable even if it does not relate to the essential job functions as long as it makes the workplace “readily accessible to and usable” by a disabled employee, or, alternatively, it allows an employee with a disability to “enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment as are enjoyed by [the employer’s] other similarly situated employees without disabilities.” Thus, the district court erred by requiring a nexus between the employee’s requested accommodation, a reserved parking space, and her job functions as an assistant attorney general.
The ADA prohibits covered employers from “discriminat[ing] against a qualified individual on the basis of disability.” 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). Discrimination includes failure to make “reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability . . . unless such covered entity can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship.” 42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(5)(A). According to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, a plaintiff asserting a discrimination claim under the ADA, must show the following:
- s/he is a “qualified individual with a disability;”
- the disability and its consequential limitations were “known” by the covered employer; and
- the employer failed to make “reasonable accommodations” for such known limitations.
The district court in Feist held that the plaintiff established the first two elements, but failed to show that the requested accommodation was “reasonable” because she had failed to demonstrate that not having a reserved parking spot limited her ability to perform “the essential functions of her job” as an assistant attorney general. The Court of Appeals, however, ruled that “the ADA, and all available interpretive authority” indicated that “reasonable accommodations” were not restricted to modifications that enabled performance of essential job functions.
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. 42 U.S.C. § 12111(9)(A).
Moreover, the ADA implementing regulations define “reasonable accommodation” as follows:
(i) Modifications or adjustments to a job application process that enable a qualified applicant with a disability to be considered for the position such qualified applicant desires; or
(ii) Modifications or adjustments to the work environment . . . that enable an individual with a disability who is qualified to perform the essential functions of that position; or
(iii) Modifications or adjustments that enable a covered entity’s employee with a disability to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment as are enjoyed by its other similarly situated employees without disabilities. 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(o)(1) (emphasis added).
Thus, the Court of Appeals concluded that a modification that enables an individual to perform the essential function of a position is only one of three categories of reasonable accommodation.
What does this mean for Texas business owners? When addressing an accommodation request by an employee with a disability, the employer should not deny the request simply because the accommodation does not relate to the employee’s essential job functions. The employer should further consider whether the accommodation will allow the employee to enjoy the same benefits and privileges that other similarly situated employees without disabilities enjoy. If the answer to that question is “yes,” then the employer will have to provide the accommodation, unless it creates an undue hardship.
Leiza Dolghih is a partner at Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP in Dallas, Texas and a Co-Chair of the firm’s Trade Secrets and Non-Compete Disputes national practice. His practice includes commercial, intellectual property and employment litigation. You can contact her directly at Leiza.Dolghih@LewisBrisbois.com or (214) 722-7108.