An “accommodation of underlings” was not a reasonable accommodation as a matter of law, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled, affirming summary judgment in favor of the employer in a disability discrimination case under the Louisiana Employment Discrimination Law. Bell v. Hercules Lifeboat Co., No. 12-30843 (5th Cir. Apr. 11, 2013) (unpublished). The Court held that an employee who could perform the essential functions of her position only by delegating them to two subordinates failed to establish she was an “otherwise qualified disabled person.” 

Background

Sue Bell worked as the cost controller/estimator in Hercules Lifeboat Company’s dry dock department. In November 2009, Bell was diagnosed with breast cancer. In March 2010, she went on disability leave. She returned to work four months later cancer-free; however, she was placed on a five-year medication regimen. Bell testified that her medication “made it, basically, impossible to work” and she had to delegate her job responsibilities to two subordinates. Without the subordinates performing her work, Bell said, she “wouldn’t have been able to accomplish anything.” 

In January 2011, Hercules eliminated Bell’s position. Bell claimed the company fired her because of her disability in violation of the Louisiana Employment Discrimination Law (“LEDL”) and sued Hercules for disability discrimination under the LEDL. Hercules asked the district court to dismiss her claim because she was not an otherwise qualified disabled person under the law. The district court agreed. Bell appealed.

Applicable Law

To establish a disability discrimination claim under the LEDL, an employee must show, among other things, that she was (1) “disabled” and (2) “otherwise qualified” at the time of the complained-of employment action. Louisiana law follows federal law in assessing whether a plaintiff is “otherwise qualified” under the LEDL. Smith v. Thurman Oils, Inc., 951 So. 2d 359 (La. Ct. App. 2006). 

Not Otherwise Qualified

Bell argued she was otherwise qualified under the LEDL because, with the “accommodation of her underlings,” she was able to function in her job. The appellate court rejected Bell’s argument. That an employee is “physically able to return to work,” the Court explained, did not establish she was “otherwise qualified.” Here, Bell admitted that she could not perform her job duties and that she had to have her subordinates perform them for her. This was not a reasonable accommodation, the Court ruled. 

The Court declined to decide whether the McDonnell-Douglas burden-shifting analysis was applicable to the LEDL, even though both parties appear to assume that it does. “It is not clear that Louisiana courts apply McDonnell-Douglas to LEDL disability discrimination claims….But we need not address this complication today,” the Court said in a footnote, “as we can decide the case on the threshold ground that Bell is not ‘otherwise qualified’ — a showing she much make whether or not McDonnell-Douglas applies.”

If an employee cannot perform the essential functions of her job without assigning those duties to someone else, the employee “cannot be reasonably accommodated as a matter of law,” the Court concluded. It affirmed summary judgment in favor of the company.

* * *

To be otherwise qualified, an individual must be able to perform the essential functions of her position, with or without a reasonable accommodation; it is not a reasonable accommodation to delegate essential functions to another worker, however. Neither the LEDL nor the Americans with Disabilities Act recognizes an “accommodation of underlings.” The decision underscores that despite the broad focus of the ADA’s interpretation of who meets the definition of disability, the individual still must be able to perform the essential functions of the position. It is always unreasonable to require others to perform the essential functions of a position that a disabled individual cannot perform.