The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) does not require a nexus between a disabled employee’s reasonable accommodation request and his or her essential job functions, according to a recent Fifth Circuit decision. The case has important implications for employees who seek general accommodations facilitating the benefits and privileges of employment that other employees enjoy. (Feist v. La., 2013 WL 5178846 (5th Cir. Sept. 16, 2013).)
Pauline Feist, a staff attorney with the Louisiana Department of Justice (LDOJ), developed an arthritic knee condition in 2005 that limited her ability to walk. When the LDOJ office relocated in 2008, staff parking was offered two blocks away from the building. Feist asked to use one of the limited onsite parking spaces reserved for senior executives, but her request was denied. The agency offered her temporary parking in a handicapped parking spot until a permanent parking space could be assigned.
Feist filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), claiming that the denial was improperly based on her race and gender, because all the onsite parking spaces were assigned to white, non-disabled men. When she was later fired for poor performance, Feist filed a second EEOC complaint alleging that her termination was pretextual, discriminatory, and in retaliation for her first EEOC complaint. In 2009, she sued in federal court, alleging civil rights and ADA violations.
The district court granted the LDOJ summary judgment. The court held that although two of three prerequisites for ADA protection were satisfied—that Feist was disabled and that the agency was aware of it—she failed to “allege or demonstrate that the parking situation limited her ability to perform the essential functions of her job.”
Feist appealed and, in a unanimous opinion authored by Judge Fortunado Benavides, the Fifth Circuit reversed in part. The court rejected Feist’s retaliation claim but concluded that “reasonable accommodations are not restricted to modifications that enable performance of essential job functions.”
Benavides observed that ADA provisions include “making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities,” and they may entail job restructuring, acquisition or modification of equipment, training materials, and “other similar accommodations” unrelated to a disabled employee’s essential job functions. Benavides found support for this interpretation in the federal regulations implementing the ADA, which define accommodations as including those that allow a disabled employee “to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment as are enjoyed by its similarly situated employees without disabilities.”
Brian East, a senior attorney at Disability Rights—Texas who coauthored an amicus curiae brief supporting Feist, said the decision properly interpreted ADA protections. “I think this decision is important, but not because a lot of trial courts have gotten this issue wrong,” said East, based in Austin, Texas. “The majority of ADA accommodation cases involve accommodations to assist in performing the essential job functions, so that is how most of the cases describe the purpose of the accommodation requirement. But the requirement is actually much broader, and the decision in Feist is an important reminder of that. The statute and regulations do not limit the requirement to enabling essential job functions. The accommodation obligation is also about ensuring equal access to the job application process, as well as equal benefits and privileges of employment,” he said.
East added that the decision is significant because it validates the EEOC’s regulations on ADA implementation. “Courts traditionally give deference to agency regulations,” he said, “but some have questioned various EEOC rules. Feist is a reminder that courts, even conservative courts, will typically follow EEOC regulations.”