Why it matters: For employers in the Fifth Circuit, finding a reasonable accommodation for a disabled employee pursuant to the ADA just got more complicated. Accommodations without a nexus to the essential functions of an employee’s job – such as a parking place for an attorney with a bad knee – should be considered to avoid the potential for a lawsuit. The court also emphasized the importance of accommodations that allow employees “to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment.”

Detailed Discussion

Adopting a broad interpretation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that an employer may have an obligation to provide a reasonable accommodation that is unrelated to the essential functions of an employee’s job.

Assistant Attorney General for the Louisiana Department of Justice Pauline Feist suffered from osteoarthritis of the knee. She requested that the LDOJ provide her with a free on-site parking space as an accommodation of her disability. The agency declined.

When she was later terminated, Feist filed suit under the ADA, alleging the refusal to provide parking violated the Act while her termination violated the prohibition on retaliation under both the ADA and Title VII.

A federal district court dismissed her suit, but the Fifth Circuit reversed. It was undisputed that Feist was a qualified individual with a disability known to her employer. Answering the remaining question, the three-judge panel found that Feist’s proposed accommodation was reasonable.

Reasonable accommodations are not restricted to modifications that enable performance of essential job functions, the court wrote. The text of the ADA “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 court said.

The panel also looked to the ADA’s implementing regulations, which provide definitions of a reasonable accommodation, specifically 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(o)(1): “Modifications or adjustment 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.”

The district court “erred in requiring a nexus between the requested accommodation and the essential functions of Feist’s position,” the Fifth Circuit concluded. The court vacated and remanded the case, expressing no opinion as to whether the parking space was reasonable.

To read the decision in Feist v. Louisiana, click here.