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Job Description Of Sales Person Did Not State Driving Was An Essential Function So Jury Must Decide Whether Company Should Accommodate Request for Driver

By on March 17, 2017 in Key Defenses with 0 Comments

Employers must carefully view job descriptions because ADA law suits often turn on the wording of those job descriptions.  In Stephenson v. Pfizer, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 3863 (4th Cir. 2016), a long-time sales person for Pfizer developed vision problems which disqualified her from driving.  Stephenson had been an extremely successful sales representative who had been inducted into Pfizer’s “Hall of Fame” for sales representatives.  She would spend eight of her ten hours each day meeting with physicians in their offices to discuss the merits of certain pharmaceutical products. She had been doing this successfully since 1984, and Pfizer gave her a car to travel from her home to sales meetings.

In 2008 Stephenson developed a vision problem which caused her to lose 60% of the vision in her left eye.  Nonetheless, she was able to drive without accommodations.  However, in 2011 the condition afflicted her right eye as well, causing the loss of 60% of the vision in that eye and disqualifying her from driving.  On October 27, 2011 Stephenson asked Pfizer to provide her with a driver to take her to sales meetings.  She researched pricing estimates from potential drivers and shuttle services.  Pfizer said that request was inherently unreasonable, and the company encouraged Stephenson to move to another position in the company which did not require driving.  Stephenson declined that offer and brought suit under the ADA.

The Pfizer job description for sales representative did not specifically list driving as an essential job function.  In spite of this, the district court granted summary judgment to Pfizer, ruling that driving was an essential function of the job whether or not it was included in the job description.  The court rejected Stephenson’s argument that travelling was really the essential function.

On appeal the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals noted that the job description for Stephenson’s position did not require that the sales rep have a driver’s license.  Discovery showed that there were postings for seven other similar positions in 2014; five postings did not mention possessing a driver’s license while two did mention it.

The Appeals Court began by observing that the ADA does not require an employer to reassign any essential job function nor require the employer to hire another employee to make reasonable accommodation.  However, the Court said that Stephenson was entitled to a trial in this case on the issue of whether driving was an essential job function.  The Court said:

If driving is an essential function of her sales position, Stephenson – who cannot drive no matter the accommodation – is not qualified under the ADA and her claim fails as a matter of law.  On the record before us, however, summary judgment is not warranted because there is a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether the essential function at issue is driving or travelling.  That factual issue is for a jury to resolve.

The Court explained that an employer must accommodate an employee with a disability who is qualified, which means one who is able to perform the essential functions of the job.  So the threshold issue in this case came down to whether driving or travelling is an essential function.  Had the employer included in Stephenson’s job description a statement that driving was an essential job function along with the possession of a driver’s license, there is no doubt that Pfizer would have won this case on appeal.  Courts generally defer to the employer on what is or what is not an essential job function, but when an employer says one thing and the job description says another, that inconsistency hurts the employer’s position.



About the Author

About the Author:

John H. Geaney, a shareholder and co-chair of Capehart Scatchard's Workers' Compensation department, began an email newsletter entitled Currents in Workers’ Compensation, ADA and FMLA in 2001 in order to keep clients and readers informed on leading developments in these three areas of law. Since that time he has written over 500 newsletter updates.

Mr. Geaney is the author of Geaney’s New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Manual for Practitioners, Adjusters & Employers. The manual is distributed by the New Jersey Institute for Continuing Legal Education (NJICLE). He also authored an ADA and FMLA manual as distributed by NJICLE. If you are interested in purchasing the manual, please contact NJICLE at 732-214-8500 or visit their website at www.njicle.com.

Mr. Geaney represents employers in the defense of workers’ compensation, ADA and FMLA matters. He is a Fellow of the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers of the American Bar Association and is certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a workers’ compensation law attorney. He is one of two firm representatives to the National Workers’ Compensation Defense Network. He has served on the Executive Committee of Capehart Scatchard for over ten (10) years.

A graduate of Holy Cross College summa cum laude, Mr. Geaney obtained his law degree from Boston College Law School. He has been named a “Super Lawyer” by his peers and Law and Politics. He serves as Vice President of the Friends of MEND, the fundraising arm of a local charitable organization devoted to promoting affordable housing.

Capehart Scatchard is a full service law firm with offices in Mt. Laurel and Trenton, New Jersey. The firm represents employers and businesses in a wide variety of areas, including workers’ compensation, civil litigation, labor, environmental, business, estates and governmental affairs.


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