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"Reasonable Accommodation" Under ADA Clarified by Second Circuit

January 1, 1996

A critical feature of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq., is its requirement that employers not only refrain from discrimination against disabled employees but, in addition, that they provide "reasonable accommodation" necessary to enable a disabled employee to perform his or her job. The statute does not contain precise guidance as to what constitutes reasonable accommodation, and in the four years since the ADA was enacted employers have struggled to determine the scope of their duty to accommodate. Recently, in Lyons v. Legal Aid Society, 68 F.3d 1512 (2d Cir. 1995), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York offered some guidance in defining what is entailed by reasonable accommodation, and suggested that the employer's obligation is indeed a broad one. In Lyons, the court overturned a lower court's dismissal of a disabled employee's claim that her employer was required under the ADA to pay the cost of a private parking space adjacent to her office building.

The plaintiff in Lyons was an attorney with the Legal Aid Society. As a result of an automobile accident, the plaintiff was unable to work for over four years. When she returned to work, she was still unable to walk unassisted, to climb steps, or to stand for extended periods, and she was therefore unable to commute to work by public transportation. Consequently, she asked the Society to pay for the cost of a parking space near her office, and her request was denied. The District Court dismissed her lawsuit, and Lyons appealed.

The Society's principal contention was that the ADA's accommodation requirement does not require an employer to make accommodations that are primarily for the individual's personal benefit. This means employers are not required to make any adjustment or modification that assists the individual throughout his or her daily activities, on and off the job, or to provide any amenity or convenience that is not job–related. The court, however, rejected the Society's claim that the parking space requested by Lyons was a "personal benefit." A proximate parking space, the court explained, could be a reasonable accommodation because it is an essential aspect of most jobs to appear at work regularly and on time.

In reaching this conclusion, the court first noted that the examples of reasonable accommodation cited in the ADA itself are both non–exclusive and wide ranging; they include all of the following: making existing facilities readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities, job restructuring, part–time or modified work schedules, reassignment to a vacant position, acquisition or modification of equipment or devices, appropriate adjustment or modifications of examinations, training materials or policies, the provision of qualified readers or interpreters, and other similar accommodations.

The court also cited regulations promulgated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under the ADA that suggest the broad scope of an employer's duty to accommodate, including an obligation to "provide modifications or adjustments to the work environment, or to the manner or circumstances under which the position held or desired is customarily performed, that enable a qualified individual with a disability to perform the essential functions of that position, or that enable a covered entity's employee with a disability to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment as are enjoyed by its other similarly–situated employees without disabilities."

In sum, the Lyons court concluded that a reasonable accommodation can, depending on the circumstances, include providing a disabled employee with assistance necessary to permit him or her travel to work. The court emphasized that determining whether an accommodation is reasonable is a fact–specific inquiry, dependent on factors such as an employer's geographic location and financial resources. Substantial cost is not itself indicative of unreasonableness. "While reasonableness depends upon a common–sense balancing of the costs and benefits to both the employer and employee," the court concluded, "an accommodation may not be considered unreasonable merely because it requires the employer to assume more than a de minimis cost or because it will cost the employer more overall to obtain the same level of performance from the disabled employee." Because a close consideration of all of the circumstances is necessary in order to determine whether a requested accommodation is reasonable, the District Court erred in dismissing the lawsuit at the initial stage.

Lyons suggests the Second Circuit has fairly high expectations of employers to accommodate employees with disabilities. This decision will make it more difficult for employers to argue that a requested accommodation is unreasonable as a matter of law, because reasonable accommodation is a fact–specific inquiry requiring development of the factual record. Indeed, the decision is a potentially far–reaching one, because it may extend the duty to accommodate to difficulties arising out of a disabled employee's commute to work. This point is illustrated in the subsequent decision of a District Court in New York in Smallwood v. Witco, 1995 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 18106 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 4, 1995), in which the court cited Lyons in refusing to dismiss the claim of a "morbidly obese" woman demanding a severance package or special transportation assistance after her company relocated to Greenwich, Connecticut from New York City. Relying on Lyons, the court stated that there was nothing inherently unreasonable in requiring an employer to furnish an otherwise qualified disabled employee with assistance related to her ability to get to work, and that because the reasonableness of the plaintiff's claim could only be determined by an examination of a full factual record, dismissal of the complaint was inappropriate.