Court ruling in disability case is a win for employees

Reversing a district court decision, Fifth Circuit states that accommodation for a disability need not relate to essential job functions

Employers have won the big court cases of late, particularly at the US Supreme Court, but the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently handed employees a win. On September 16, the court issued its opinion in Feist v. Louisiana, making clear that the Americans with Disabilities Act means what it says, and so do the implementing regulations. The latter enable an employee to bring discrimination claims when her employer doesn’t reasonably accommodate her disabilities, even if the accommodation is not related to ‘the essential functions of her job.’

In Feist, the employee suffered from osteoarthritis in her knee, and wanted a free on-site parking space so that she wouldn’t have to walk as far to get inside to work. Her employer, the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office, refused to give her the parking space. She sued for discrimination under the ADA for her employer’s failure to make a reasonable accommodation, but the District Court rejected her suit on the basis that the requested parking space would not enable her to perform an essential job function.

The Fifth Circuit reversed that ruling but did not decide whether or not Feist was entitled to the parking spot. That issue will be decided by the trial court. Instead, the Fifth Circuit said that, as a matter of law, the trial court was wrong in that the accommodation did not have to be tied to a core job function.

How big a win for employees Feist is depends partly on whom one asks. Brian East, a senior attorney at Disability Rights Texas who has for the last 17 years exclusively represented individuals with disabilities, mostly in employment matters, believes Feist is an important victory.

‘I think this decision is important because it reminds us all of the breadth of the ADA’s accommodation requirement,’ says East. ‘The statute and the regulations are clear that the requirement extends beyond enabling essential job functions. It's also about ensuring equal access to the job application process, as well as equal benefits and privileges of employment, like training, parking, and more. Accommodations help ensure that the employee with a disability has the same opportunities as everyone else.’

East also notes that most opinions ‘recite the idea that accommodations are for enabling essential job functions, because that is what the particular case is about, and people may internalize that language, even though the accommodation requirement is actually much broader.’

Kevin Troutman, a partner with employer-side firm Fisher & Phillips who was a human resources executive for 17 years before going to law school, sees Feist as a pro-employee decision, but not as momentous as East regards it. 'I’m not sure that [Feist] changes the fundamental analysis all that much,’ he says. ‘If the parking space would enable the employee to attend work more regularly or predictably that ultimately helps her perform the essential functions of her job.’

Still, Troutman agrees that the ADA’s accommodation requirement is broad, citing the court’s statement that ‘the whole point of the reasonable accommodation is to enable the employee to enjoy the equal benefits and privileges of employment.’ As a result, he cautions employers not to ‘get too hung up on whether there’s a direct line between the accommodation and an essential job function.’

The Feist decision, East says, is also significant in that it shows courts will give the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regulations some deference.

‘Courts traditionally gave deference to agency regulations like that, but some have questioned that deference in light of certain language from the Supreme Court,’ he says. ‘So Feist is also a reminder that courts will typically follow EEOC regulations, even courts (like the Fifth Circuit) that in recent years have been among the hardest courts for employees to prevail in.’

Troutman says he thinks a factor in the Fifth Circuit’s ruling was its disapproval of the employer refusing an accommodation that would help the employee get to work. ‘The underlying message is that employers still need to perform an individualized analysis of each situation,’ he says. ‘I think that ultimately that’s what the case underscores more than anything else.’

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