How did one woman’s request for a parking spot turn into an important disability ruling about reasonable accommodations?

Pauline Feist, who worked as an assistant attorney general for the Louisianan Department of Justice, had osteoarthritis in her knee.

She asked the department for a free on-site parking space as a reasonable accommodation. The department refused, saying granting her request wouldn’t help her accomplish the essential functions of her job.

So Feist filed a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), claiming that the state had failed to accommodate her disability. Feist was later fired for poor performance.

‘Essential functions’ — or more?

Then Feist filed a lawsuit claiming disability bias and retaliation.

A district court ruled in the company’s favor, but on appeal, a circuit court surprisingly ruled in Feist’s favor.

Why? The court looked outside the official definition of “reasonable accommodation” under the Americans with Disabilities Act and instead went to guidance from the EEOC.

In that guidance, the agency states that accommodating a disabled employee so he or she can do the essential functions of the job is only one of three categories of reasonable accommodation.

Instead, the court found that reasonable accommodations can also include actions that enable a worker to “enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment” — like a free on-site parking spot, for example.

In short, the court said, there doesn’t need to be a link between an employee’s essential functions of a job and a request reasonable accommodation.

Did the court just expand the ADA?

Though the case is only binding in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, Foley & Lardner attorney Christopher Ward, writing on the Labor & Employment Law Perspectives blog, had this takeaway for HR pros across the country:

The Fifth Circuit’s decision … 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… 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.

The case is Feist v. State of Louisiana.

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