Employers have been told for years that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires them to accommodate disabled employees so they can perform the essential functions of the job. So if an office worker has a back injury, then you may need to provide a certain type of ergonomic chair, right? A desk job needs a chair.
But what if that same office worker asks for a parking spot closer to the building? How is that request tied to the essential functions of her desk job? As this new ADA-expanding court ruling shows, you may need to be more open to accommodating any kind of accommodation request—not just one that’s linked to the job’s essential functions ...
Case in Point: Pauline Feist, a lawyer at the Louisiana Department of Justice, has a chronic knee condition. Feist typically parked her car about 20 feet away from the office doors. But when the agency moved offices, Feist was assigned a parking spot about two blocks away.
Feist asked to park in the new building’s covered garage. She even brought in a doctor’s note explaining the need. But her employer declined, claiming the closer spots were reserved for employees with higher seniority.
Feist sued under the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA), citing disability discrimination and failing to provide her with a reasonable accommodation. The agency argued the parking spot was not a reasonable request because it had nothing to do with her performing the essential elements of her lawyer job.
The ruling: A lower court agreed and towed her case out of court.
But she appealed and the higher court sided with her, saying a close reading of the ADAAA “gives no indication that an accommodation must facilitate the essential functions of one’s position.” Instead, the court said, a reasonable accommodation can simply include “making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities.” (Feist v. Louisiana, 5th Cir., No. 12-31065, 9/16/13)
3 Lessons Learned Without Going To Court
- Think outside the job description. The court noted that regulations implementing the ADAAA indicate that an accommodation need not be tied directly to an essential job function.
- Modify your thinking. Specifically, the ADAAA says a reasonable accommodation can include adjustments to the work environment that enable the worker to “enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment,” such as a free, reserved parking space.
- Enjoy thinking like the ADAAA. Employers now need to take a broader view when approving potential accommodations. Don’t just look at whether accommodations can help employees perform the job’s essential functions, consider whether the accommodation helps them enjoy the “equal benefits” of the workplace.