Posted 10-07-2013

Managers and supervisors learn that state and federal discrimination law requires them to explore a reasonable accommodation for disabled employees to enable them to perform one or more essential functions of the job. But, this connection is so often stated, that many employment professionals have come to believe that any requested accommodation must be linked directly to the actual performance of one or more essential job functions. Recently, the State of Louisiana, learned that was not true, through a difficult and expensive lesson.

The employee in the case, Feist v. State of Louisiana, No. 12-31065 (5th Cir. Sept. 16, 2013), had been an assistant attorney general for the Louisiana Department of Justice for years. Ms. Feist developed osteoarthritis in her knee during her employment and asked her boss to help her get a parking space near her building. When he didn’t, she phrased the request to HR as a reasonable accommodation for her disability. After consideration, HR and management (who were all lawyers!) concluded that since her requested accommodation did not specifically relate to the performance of one or more of her “essential” job functions, they did not have to grant the request, and denied it. Management was also unhappy with her performance, as she allegedly she failed to bring information to her employer that would have facilitated settlement in one case and failed to timely oppose a motion for summary judgment in another case which resulted in a $500,000 judgment against the State. So, they fired her a short time later.

Ms. Feist filed a lawsuit for disability discrimination/failure to accommodate and retaliatory termination. Although a trial judge initially upheld the State’s actions and dismissed both claims in 2012, the Court of Appeals just two weeks ago reversed the judgment as to the disability/duty to accommodate claim, holding in a major decision on the issue (and siding with the few other courts that had addressed the issue) that there does not have to be a direct connection between the requested accommodation and one or more of the essential functions of the position. As a result, the case was sent back for trial on the failure to accommodate claim only. The Court did uphold the State’s termination decision, finding Ms. Feist had failed to present evidence that the management’s stated reason for the decision was false.

What this means to you:

Managers and supervisors and their experts, HR and Legal, must understand the broad scope of the ADA accommodation obligation and must not dismiss out of hand accommodation requests, even those that may seem unconnected to the performance of the essential functions of the disabled employee’s job.  The employer’s reasonable accommodation policies, HR, managers and supervisors, all must communicate to employees a willingness to consider any and all reasonable accommodations that may provide disabled employees access to the benefits of employment. In addition, this case once again reinforces the importance to managers of good, consistent documentation of its performance management of each employee. Although management in this case learned (hopefully) a hard lesson about not being too dismissive of accommodation requests, documentation of the reasons for its termination decision at least allowed them to avoid Ms. Feist’s retaliatory termination claim.

Information here is correct at the time it is posted. Case decisions cited here may be reversed. Please do not rely on this information without consulting an attorney first.