The Americans with Disabilities Act does not require a link between a requested accommodation and the employee’s essential job functions for the employee to state a claim of unlawful discrimination, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans has ruled. Feist v. State of Louisiana, No. 12-31065 (5th Cir. Sept. 16, 2013). Reversing summary judgment in favor of the employer on the employee’s failure-to-accommodate claim under the ADA, the Court ruled 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. However, the Court affirmed summary judgment in favor of the employer on the employee’s retaliation claim because the employee failed to show the employer’s reasons for her termination were pretextual.

Background

Pauline G. Feist was an assistant attorney general for the Louisiana Department of Justice (“LDOJ”). She suffered from osteoarthritis of the knee and, as a reasonable accommodation, requested a free on-site parking space. The LDOJ declined to provide the parking space, and Feist filed a discrimination charge under the ADA with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Approximately five months later, the LDOJ terminated Feist’s employment for poor performance. In one case, she failed to disclose information that would have helped facilitate a settlement. In another case, she failed to timely oppose a motion for summary judgment, causing a $500,000 judgment to be entered against LDOJ. 

Feist sued the LDOJ for failing to accommodate her disability and retaliation in violation of the ADA. The district court granted the LDOJ’s motion for summary judgment, finding that Feist failed to show how the denial of on-site parking limited her ability to perform the essential functions of her job. It also found that Feist failed to establish the LDOJ’s stated reasons for her termination were pretextual. Feist appealed.

Applicable Law

The ADA prohibits employers from failing 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). A reasonable accommodation may include: 

(1)making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities; and 

(2)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).

To establish a prima facie retaliation claim under the ADA, the employee must show that: 

(1) she participated in an activity protected under the statute; 

(2) her employer took an adverse employment action against her; and 

(3) a causal connection exists between the protected activity and the adverse action. 

Seaman v. CSPH, Inc., 179 F.3d 297, 301 (5th Cir. 1999). “If the employee establishes a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the employer to state a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for its decision. After the employer states its reason, the burden shifts back to the employee to demonstrate that the employer’s reason is actually a pretext for retaliation.” LeMaire v. Louisiana, 480 F.3d 383, 388-89 (5th Cir. 2007).

Failure-to-Accommodate Claim 

Feist argued that the district court erred by finding the ADA requires the requested reasonable accommodation to be related to her position. The Court agreed. It noted the ADA’s text gave “no indication that an accommodation must facilitate the essential functions” of an employee’s position. The Court found the requested reserved on-site parking might have been an appropriate accommodation as it would have made Feist’s workplace “readily accessible to and usable” by her, as stated in the ADA’s definition of “reasonable accommodation.” The ADA’s regulations include many examples of reasonable accommodations, the Court pointed out. In addition, the EEOC’s guidance on the ADA states expressly that “providing reserved parking spaces” could constitute a reasonable accommodation. 29 C.F.R. pt. 1630 App., § 1630.2(o). Therefore, the Court concluded the district court erred in requiring a nexus between the requested accommodation and the essential functions of Feist’s position. It returned the case to the district court, directing it to determine whether the proposed accommodation was reasonable.

Retaliation Claim

The Court found that, although Feist had established a prima facie case of retaliation, once the burden shifted back to her after the employer stated a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for its decision (her significant litigation errors), she failed to show the stated reasons were pretextual. Further, the LDOJ had terminated other employees for similar errors. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the dismissal of Feist’s retaliation claim.

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While the Fifth Circuit, which has jurisdiction over Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, expressly declined to rule on whether the requested accommodation in this case was reasonable, the holding clearly requires employers to consider seriously accommodation requests that are not tied directly to performance of essential job functions. The EEOC and a growing number of other courts have adopted similar positions. Exactly how far the ADA accommodation obligation extends remains to be seen and likely will be the subject of much litigation.

Employers seeking to limit exposure to such ADA claims should train managers and supervisors on the broad scope of the ADA accommodation obligation and discourage them from dismissing out of hand accommodation requests that, at first blush, seem only loosely connected to an individual’s employment. An employer’s reasonable accommodation policies also should communicate a willingness to consider reasonable accommodations that provide individuals access to the benefits and privileges of employment.