St. Louis Employment Law Firm Notes Unpublished Fifth Circuit Decision Holding that Assigning Essential Functions to Others is Not a Reasonable Accommodation

In Bell v. Hercules Lifeboat Company LLC, No. 3:11-CV-332 (5th Cir.  April 11, 2013), the plaintiff returned to work after cancer surgery.  Though she had completed her surgery, she was placed on a five-year post-cancer medication regimen.  She was fired soon after she returned.  The plaintiff filed suit claiming that Hercules fired her because of her disability in violation of the Louisiana Employment Discrimination Law.  She also added ERISA claims against Hercules and its insurers.  In her amended complaint and subsequent pleadings, the plaintiff said that her treatments nearly destroyed her concentration skills, impaired her vision, and gave her headaches to the point that she was unable to perform eighty percent of her job duties.  She claimed that she was unable to function on computers and because of that she was delegating her responsibilities to her subordinates.  In her deposition, the plaintiff elaborated further and acknowledged that her medication made it impossible to accomplish anything without her two subordinates.  She said that she basically was completing her job because of them.  Moreover, she said she would be unable to complete her job for the next three years due to her treatment.

The district court dismissed the plaintiff’s ERISA claims and granted summary judgment to Hercules on her LEDL claim on the ground that the plaintiff was not otherwise qualified to work.  The plaintiff appealed only the LEDL claim. To establish a disability discrimination claim under the LEDL, a plaintiff must show that she was:

  1. Disabled, and
  2. Otherwise qualified at the time of the complained-of employment action.

The court defined “Otherwise qualified” to mean that a disabled person with reasonable accommodation can perform the essential functions of the position.  Hercules conceded the first element, but argued that her admissions proved that she could not prove that she could perform her essential job duties without unreasonable accommodation, in this case her subordinates completing her work.  The Bell court first cited other cases, which found that various plaintiffs’ representations for ERISA-like benefits undermined their ability to show that they were capable of performing their jobs.  The plaintiff said that she was physically able to return to work, but needed other employees to help her perform the essential functions of her job.  The court reasoned “if an employee can’t perform the essential functions of her job absent assigning those duties to someone else, she cannot be reasonably accommodated as a matter of law.”  The Bell court thus affirmed the district court in granting summary judgment for Hercules.

While decided under LEDL, it is important for employers to understand that a reasonable accommodation may include a transfer to an open position under the EEOC”s guidance, but typically courts have held that an employee must be able to perform the essential functions of his or her job with or without accommodation, meaning that eliminating essential functions or assigning essential functions to other employees does not constitute a reasonable accommodation.  Employers must therefore take care to understand what the essential functions of their employees’ positions are, and what accommodations are reasonable to assist employees in doing their jobs.  The St. Louis employment law firm of McMahon Berger has been representing employers regarding the interactive process and providing reasonable accommodations for many years.  Our highly experienced team of labor attorneys has a diverse range of experience from government regulatory agencies, the private sector, and the political sphere in order to see the complex issues between management and labor from all angles.

Contact Our St. Louis Employment Law Firm for Clarity and Assistance on Your Employment Law Issues at 314.567.7350.