By Brandi O. Brown, J.D.
Vacating a district court decision granting summary judgment to Pfizer in an ADA suit brought by one of its top pharmaceutical sales reps, the Fourth Circuit concluded that a jury needed to determine whether traveling—not driving—was an essential function of the employee’s job. The employee claimed that Pfizer summarily denied her request for a driver after she became unable to drive herself due to vision loss caused by an eye disorder. In an unpublished decision, the appeals court revived her claim and remanded the matter to the district court (Stephenson v. Pfizer, Inc.
, March 2, 2016, per curiam).
The employee went to work for Pfizer in 1984 after graduating from Duke University. She was highly successful in her position—named "Rookie of the Year" in 1985 and inducted into the company’s "Hall of Fame" in 2000. She later was named a "Pfizer Master," generated millions of dollars in sales each year for the company, and was consistently ranked as one of its top North Carolina sales reps. She did not maintain an office at a Pfizer facility, but instead used a company-provided car to travel from her home to various sales meetings. Most of her workday was spent in meetings with doctors and she spent most of her day away from her home and on the road. Although the employee understood that her job required travel, her job description said nothing about driving a car or possessing a driver's license.
In 2008 the employee developed an eye disorder that affects the flow of blood to optic nerves. First she lost 60 percent of her vision in her left eye. Within three years' time, she also lost 60 percent of her vision in her right eye. Due to the combined loss she was no longer able to drive. In October 2011 she asked her employer to accommodate her vision problems by providing her with magnifying software and other magnifying tools and by providing a driver. She researched and provided to the employer price estimates for potential drivers and shuttle services. In November 2011 she went on disability leave. On November 28 she received an email granting her requests for software and tools, but rejecting her request for a driver. The denial was based on the employer's conclusion that driving was an essential function of her job and that hiring a driver would be "inherently unreasonable." The employer explained that it would face "significant increased risk and liability related to vehicular accidents, workers compensation, and misappropriation of and/or lost drug samples."
Setting a precedent?
Although she repeated her requests over the following months, they were continually denied. She was told by the regional business director that Pfizer was worried about "setting precedent in case a future non-performing employee were to ask for something similar" and that not everyone was like her. She was directed to other positions within the company, but she declined to pursue them, believing her skills were better suited to the job in which she had excelled for so long.
A district court awarded summary judgment in favor of Pfizer on the employee’s ADA claim, concluding there was no material dispute as to whether driving was an essential function of her job. Although the court noted that a genuine dispute existed regarding whether the employer's posted job descriptions explicitly required a job candidate to be able to drive, it reasoned that the absence of such a requirement was not dispositive.
The EEOC and several advocacy organizations acted as amici in support of the employee on her appeal. The question before the Fourth Circuit was whether jury input was needed with regards to the question whether the employee could perform the essential functions of her position with a reasonable accommodation. Two factors inform whether a specific function is essential to a position, the appeals court explained: the employer's judgment and the written job description. Regulations help further flesh out that inquiry by defining essential functions and identifying factors that serve as evidence of whether a function is essential.
Jury to decide.
Although Pfizer contended that the ability to drive was an essential job function, the employee argued that it was the ability to travel
that was at issue. Resolving this dispute was critical to the employee's ADA claim; if driving was an essential function, then she was not qualified and her claim failed as a matter of law. However, it was a genuine dispute of material fact, and a jury would need to resolve the question.
In a footnote, the appeals court pointed out that a genuine dispute of material fact also existed as to Pfizer’s assertion that even if driving was not
an essential function, hiring a driver would be an unreasonable accommodation.