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Fifth Circuit Issues First of Several Pro-Employee Decisions: ADA Accommodations Need not Relate to Essential Job Functions

Posted in Benefits

The Fifth Circuit, which covers federal district courts from Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, has been busy recently issuing decisions in the employment law arena.  Surprisingly, many of these decisions from this traditionally pro-business Circuit have been pro-employee.  Several of our next blog posts will address some of the Fifth Circuit’s most surprising recent rulings.

In the first of these decisions, the Fifth Circuit vacated a Louisiana district court’s granting of summary judgment on an employee plaintiff’s ADA failure-to-accommodate claim. See Feist v. State of Louisiana, 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 19133 (5th Cir. Sept. 16, 2013).  The employee, an attorney for the state of Louisiana, claimed her employer violated the ADA by failing to provide her with a reserved parking space, at no charge, to accommodate her osteoarthritis.  The district court concluded that the employee’s request was not reasonable because the parking space did not relate to the performance of the essential functions of her position as a state attorney.   Assuming the district court applied the correct standard, its ruling makes sense.  Where an attorney parks her car has no effect on how she negotiates a contract, writes a legal brief or argues a motion in court.

In a pro-employee decision, however, the Fifth Circuit ruled that the district court, in fact, applied the wrong legal standard.  The appropriate standard, it determined, does not relate to whether the requested job accommodation concerns an essential job function.  The Fifth Circuit examined the text of the ADA, and concluded that it did not contain such limiting language.   Moreover, it cited to the (i) ADA’s regulations, which explicitly recognize that accommodations may be reasonable while also unrelated to the essential functions of the job in question, and (ii) EEOC’s guidance providing that reserved parking spaces may in certain situations constitute reasonable accommodations.  Therefore, the Fifth Circuit remanded the case to the district court, effectively ordering it to reconsider the issue without requiring a nexus between the request for a reserved parking space and the essential functions of the attorney’s position.  In so doing, the Fifth Circuit did not opine on whether the attorney’s requested accommodation for the reserved parking space was, in fact, reasonable based on the facts before it.

The Fifth’s Circuit decision is significant for two reasons. First, it opens up employers to a wide array of new failure-to-accommodate lawsuits and the resulting risk, time and expenses associated with them.  Wise employers will waste no time in training their H.R. staff to identify and respond to accommodation requests that they may have previously dismissed and even ignored.  Employers should also examine their ADA policies to determine whether they comply with the Fifth Circuit’s ruling.

Second, as we will explore in future blog posts, the Feist decision might very well represent a significant change in the Fifth Circuit’s overall view, approach and outlook towards the viability of employment law claims. Indeed, this ruling is the first of several that we will address where the Fifth Circuit has firmly sided with the plaintiff-employee, rather than the defendant-employer.