Topic: Reasonable Accommodation, Essential Function of a Job
Audience: Employers, Attorneys & Legal professionals, Disability advocates, Individuals with disabilities/Family members, State/local government agencies
Summary: Whether a reasonable accommodation must be related to an "essential function" of a job under Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act?
Pauline G. Feist, a former assistant attorney general for the Louisiana Department of Justice (“LDOJ”), was diagnosed with osteoarthritis of the knee. As a result, Feist requested that the LDOJ provide her with a free on-site parking space as to accommodate her disability. The LDOJ declined to provide the accommodation. In response, Feist filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). Five months after Feist filed her complaint, she was terminated by the LDOJ for poor performance. The LDOJ stated that Feist had performed substandard work on two cases.
Feist brought two claims against the LDOJ. First, Feist claimed that the LDOJ discriminated against her, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), by refusing to provide her with free on-site parking. Second, Feist claimed that the LDOJ violated the ADA and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by firing her in retaliation for charges she filed against the LDOJ with the EEOC.
The District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana held that Feist’s discrimination claim had to be dismissed because she failed to explain how the denial of the free on-site parking limited her ability to perform the “essential functions” of her job. The district court dismissed her retaliation claim because Feist did not provide evidence that the LDOJ would not have fired her absent a retaliatory motive. Feist appealed the district court’s rulings to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
In order for a plaintiff to prevail on a failure to provide a reasonable accommodation claim they must prove: (1) the plaintiff is a “qualified individual with a disability;” (2) the disability and its consequential limitation were “known” by the employer; and (3) the employer failed to make “reasonable accommodations” for the known limitation. In this case the LDOJ conceded that Feist was a qualified individual and they knew about her disability. Therefore, the only issue in this case was what legal standard the Court should use in determining whether a proposed accommodation was reasonable.
The district court held that an accommodation would only be found reasonable if it limited one’s ability to perform the essential functions of their job. On appeal, Feist argued that reasonable accommodations are not restricted to modifications that enable performance of an essential job function. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Feist and vacated the district court’s decision. The Court held that the language of ADA and its implementing regulations demonstrated that a reasonable accommodation did not need to relate to the performance of essential job functions. According to the ADA a reasonable accommodation can consist of making an existing facility readily accessible to individuals with disabilities. Also, it can involve the restructuring of a job, adjusting examinations, training materials or polices, or providing qualified readers or interpreters to individuals with disabilities. In fact, the ADA implementing regulations specifically state that providing a parking space may constitute a reasonable accommodation under certain circumstances. The Court returned the case to the district court to determine whether the accommodation proposed was reasonable.
The Fifth Circuit found that Feist could not prevail on her retaliation claim because she failed to show that her claim with the EEOC caused the LDOJ to terminate her. In order for a plaintiff to prevail on a retaliation claim they must prove: (1) that they participated in an activity protected by the ADA; (2) that their employer took an adverse employment action against them; and (3) that their participation in the protected activity caused the adverse employment action. If the plaintiff establishes all three elements, then the burden shifts to the employer to show a legitimate and non-retaliatory reason for its adverse employment action. If the employer can show a legitimate and non-retaliatory reason, then the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to demonstrate that the employer’s reasoning for the adverse employment action is pretext for retaliation against the plaintiff.
The Court found that Feist demonstrated the three required elements of retaliation, but that the LDOJ had a legitimate and non-retaliatory reason for firing Feist due to her substandard work on two cases. Therefore, the burden of proof shifted back to Feist to demonstrate that the LDOJ’s reason for her termination (i.e., substandard work performance) was pretext for retaliation. The Fifth Circuit held that Feist did not offer sufficient evidence to prove that the LDOJ’s explanation for Feist’s firing was pre-textual. The Court relied on the fact that the LDOJ had consistently fired other employees for mishandling cases to reach this determination. The Court therefore dismissed Feist’s ADA and Title VII retaliation claim against the LDOJ.
The Fifth Circuit vacated the district court’s grant of summary judgment on Feist’s ADA discrimination claim. The Court found that an accommodation did not have to relate to the essential function of a job. The Fifth Circuit, however, affirmed the district court’s ruling on Feist’s retaliation claim, finding that the LDOJ offered a legitimate and non-retaliatory reason for Feist’s termination that was not pretext for retaliation.
In this case, the Fifth Circuit clarified that a reasonable accommodation does not need to relate to an essential function of a job. The district court erroneously relied upon the Fifth Circuit’s ruling in Burch v. Coca-Cola Company when it ruled that Feist’s accommodation had to relate to an essential function of her job at the LDOJ. However, Burch only addressed whether a plaintiff was a qualified individual with a disability, which does require the Court to analyze essential job functions. But, in this case it was conceded that Feist was a qualified individual with a disability; therefore, the district court should not have analyzed whether the accommodation Feist requested was related to the essential function of her job.
Other Circuit Courts have come to the same conclusion as the Fifth Circuit. For example, the Sixth Circuit also does not require a reasonable accommodation relate to the essential functions of a job (Jakubowski v. Christ Hospital). However, not all Circuit Courts have come to this same conclusion. The Eleventh Circuit, for instance, only considers an accommodation reasonable if it helps an employee perform an essential job function (Knowles v. Sherriff ).
It is unclear if the parking space Feist requested is a reasonable accommodation because the Court did not decide the case on the merits. Instead, the Fifth Circuit remanded the case back to the district court to make a decision.