ADA Covers Accommodations Not Tied to Essential Job Duties

November 7, 2013

The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) prohibits covered employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of disability. That prohibition requires an employer to provide “reasonable accommodation” to disabled employees, unless doing so would cause undue hardship. The burden is on the employee to request accommodation and make it known to the employer that the request is for a reason related to the employee’s disability or medical condition. But the employee need not reference the ADA, use any particular magic language (including the phrase “reasonable accommodation”), or request a specific form of accommodation. And the burden is on the employer to demonstrate that providing the accommodation would impose undue hardship.

Most employees who request accommodations do so in order to help them better perform the essential functions of their job. For example, an employee who requests that her desk be modified so that her wheelchair will fit under it is requesting a reasonable accommodation that will allow her to perform her job duties.

But what about an employee who needs an accommodation not directly related to her essential job duties? For example, an attorney who requests accommodation in the form of parking closer to the office? The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals (the federal appellate court covering Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi) recently held that the ADA’s definition of “reasonable accommodation” is broad enough to encompass those accommodations as well. The case is Pauline G. Feist v. State of Louisiana externa, No. 12-31065 (5th Cir. Sept. 16, 2013).

Pauline Feist was an assistant attorney general for the Louisiana Department of Justice (“LDOJ”) who had difficulty walking because she suffered from arthritis in her knee. When the LDOJ offices relocated to a new office space, employees were required to park two blocks away, although there was limited on-site parking available for senior management. Feist requested that she be given free on-site parking as a form of accommodation for her disability, and the LDOJ denied her request. She later brought a lawsuit against the LDOJ, asserting a claim under the ADA, among other federal statutes.

The district court ruled against Feist, holding that the requested accommodation was not “reasonable” because Feist failed to “allege or demonstrate that the parking situation 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 duty. The Fifth Circuit correctly held that Feist was correct, and reversed that portion of the district court’s order.

The court observed that reasonable accommodations under the ADA could include modifying existing facilities or office space, restructuring jobs, modifying work schedules, providing an employee with equipment or interpreters, and a variety of other types of accommodations that are not designed to facilitate performance of an employee’s essential functions. The court also took note that the EEOC guidelines explicitly state that providing reserved parking spaces may constitute reasonable accommodations under some circumstances.

The court did not expressly hold that the requested accommodation was reasonable, only that the district court applied an incorrect legal standard by holding that any accommodation unrelated to essential job duties is not reasonable. The precise contours of an employer’s duty to accommodate disabled employees has long been and will continue to be an area that is the subject of significant litigation. But the Feist opinion is strong appellate authority cautioning employers not to narrowly interpret the “reasonable accommodation” requirement of the ADA.

If you suffer from a medical condition or disability that affects your mobility, your job performance, or other life functions, call us or fill out the form on the right side of this page to request a consultation about your legal rights and responsibilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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