If warning bells went off in your head after reading the title of this article, they should have. The Fourth Circuit in Stephenson v. Pfizer recently reversed summary judgment to allow a jury to decide whether driving was an essential function of a legally blind salesperson’s job, which required her to spend eight out of 10 hours of her workday on the road and in meetings with medical professionals.
Whitney Stephenson was a stellar salesperson during her 30 years of employment with Pfizer. Ms. Stephenson’s position required her to make in-person sales presentations regarding pharmaceutical products. There was no dispute that her job required traveling and that driving an automobile was her method of traveling.
In 2008, Ms. Stephenson developed an eye disorder, which eventually left her unable to drive. She requested various accommodations from Pfizer, including a driver to transport her to sales meetings. Pfizer denied her request for a driver, contending that driving is an essential function of her sales position and providing a driver is an unreasonable accommodation. Pfizer also directed her to other positions within the company that did not require traveling. Stephenson declined to pursue them and instead filed an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The district court held that driving was an essential function of the sales position and affirmed Pfizer’s motion for summary judgment. Surprisingly, the Fourth Circuit reversed summary judgment and remanded the case for a jury to decide the issue of driving as an essential function. Although the Fourth Circuit acknowledged that the ADA does not require an employer to reassign any of the essential functions of a disabled employee, nor does it require hiring additional employees to perform an essential function, here it found a material dispute of fact as to whether "driving" or "traveling" was an essential function of Ms. Stephenson's position. Despite the fact that Ms. Stephenson could not drive no matter the accommodation, she argued that she could “travel” with an accommodation.
In determining whether something is an essential function, courts look at several factors, including the job description. Here, the court highlighted that the job description made no mention of driving or maintaining a driver's license as a requirement.
While a jury may ultimately decide that driving was an essential function in this case, the Fourth Circuit’s parsing of traveling from driving, essentially a means to an end, if followed by other circuits, will require employers to more carefully analyze the essential functions of their jobs.
The immediate lesson to be learned from this decision: employers should include "driving" and "maintaining a valid driver's license" in job descriptions for sales representatives and other positions requiring extensive road travel. Also, depending on the federal circuit in which your workers reside and how the law on this issue continues to develop, you may need to ask whether “traveling” and not “driving” is the essential function and engage in the interactive process and consider reasonable accommodations for someone who cannot drive due to a disability but can still travel.