Does "Reasonable Accommodation" Have Nothing to Do With "Essential Job Functions"?

30 September 2013 Labor & Employment Law Perspectives Blog

Since the original passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”) in 1990, employers have come to know that they generally have an obligation to reasonably accommodate a qualified individual with a disability, presumably to enable him or her to perform the essential functions of the job. Indeed, with the more recent 2008 passage of the Americans With Disabilities Amendments Act, that obligation has received greater attention due to the amended law’s purpose of bringing more individuals within the definition of “qualified individual with a disability.”

Under either iteration of the disability law, an oft-shared understanding by employers has been that their obligation to reasonably accommodate an employee only applies to accommodations that enable the worker to perform the essential functions of the job – but not necessarily grant accommodations that have nothing to do with an individual’s actual job duties. A recent decision from the United States Court of Appeal for the Fifth Circuit has rejected outright this premise and, potentially of concern to employers, adopted a far more expansive view of what an employer’s obligation is to accommodate disabled employees.

In the case, the employee, a former assistant attorney general for the Louisiana Department of Justice, sought free on-site parking at her employer’s location to accommodate her osteoarthritis in her knee. The employer initially won a dismissal via summary judgment by arguing that the requested accommodation would not in any way enable the employee to perform the key duties of her legal job. However, the Fifth Circuit reversed the employer’s initial win, agreeing with the employee’s argument that the duty to reasonably accommodate a worker does not require a link between a requested accommodation and an essential job function. In reaching that conclusion, the appellate court followed regulations from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), which provide that a job modification enabling an individual to perform the essential functions of a position is only one of three categories of reasonable accommodation. It thus endorsed the EEOC’s position that reasonable accommodations include modifications enabling an employee “to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment,” even though such a provision does not precisely track the ADA’s statutory definition of reasonable accommodation.

The Fifth Circuit’s decision – coming from an appellate court traditionally viewed as a conservative tribunal – follows a clear trend suggesting that employers must take a broad view of their obligations with respect to disabled employees. Following the Court’s conclusion, an employer’s accommodation analysis is not limited to an evaluation of whether a potential accommodation is reasonable as measured against an employee’s job functions; instead, the focus should be simply whether the potential accommodation is reasonable. While this conclusion is only technically binding in the Fifth Circuit (covering Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi) for now, the decision should serve as notice throughout the country that courts may continue to take expansive views of employer duties under the ADA. Prudent employers should thus focus their accommodation analyses more on the reasonableness of potential accommodations themselves and put less emphasis on the accommodation’s impact on the employee’s ability to perform his or her job functions.

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