Since its historic passage in 1990, the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”) has taken a wild drive down the Interpretation Highway. As our travels have shown, when employees claim discrimination under the ADA, they must prove (among other things) that the employer failed to make a reasonable accommodation based on the employees’ known limitations. In a recent Fifth Circuit decision, however, the court took an unexpected detour and (potentially) paved a new road in the accommodation process.
In Feist v. Louisiana, the plaintiff claimed she was discriminated against when her employer failed to grant her request for a free, reserved, on-site parking space to accommodate her disability: osteoarthritis of the knee. The plaintiff claimed her request was a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. The employer said it was not, and the lower court agreed. It held that the plaintiff would only be eligible for such a spot if she could show the reserved space was an essential function of the position.
Now, we’ve been down this road many times and we’ve never seen “parking spot” in the “essential function” portion of a job description. And based on the lower court’s reasoning, an accommodation outside of the essential functions of a position would never be required by an employer. But the Fifth Circuit disagreed and reversed that decision. It held that the ADA does not require a link between a requested accommodation and an essential job function.
In Feist, the Court decided that reasonable accommodations need not be restricted to modifications enabling the performance of essential job functions. In fact, the court held that identifying modifications to essential job functions is only one of three ways an employee can request a reasonable accommodation.
The first way relates to the job application process, and yes, the second does hinge on adjusting the work environment to enable qualified individuals with disabilities to complete essential job functions of the position. But where the lower court stopped short, the Fifth Circuit picked up and pointed to the third type of modification that could constitute a reasonable accommodation: modifications that enable an employee with a disability to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment enjoyed by others.
DOES THIS ONLY APPLY TO THE FIFTH CIRCUIT?
Only time will tell if other courts will give the Fifth Circuit’s decision any traction. But based on the recent commentary of this remarkably short (8 page) opinion, employers’ hazard lights should start flashing next time they consider an accommodation. A win like this is probably rare for an employee, but it speaks volumes regarding employee protections and may map out the road for more creative or unorthodox accommodations. Other courts will surely take notice.
SO DO I HAVE TO GET PAINT AND A PAINTBRUSH?
Not necessarily. The Fifth Circuit actually refused to comment on whether the proposed accommodation was a reasonable one. But parking puns aside, the Fifth Circuit’s decision provides guidance to any employer (or least employers in that Circuit) presented with requests for accommodations.
WHERE THE RUBBER HITS THE ROAD.
So what is the bottom line? It is important that employers do not view the ADA’s reasonable accommodation requirements as narrowly as the defendant did in Feist. The interactive process is designed and encouraged to allow both employers and employees to explore unique and creative ways to allow employees with disabilities to participate fully in the employment experience. In other words, don’t be afraid to think outside the blue lines of the handicap spot.