Most employers would assume that a traveling salesperson who could no longer drive due to a medical condition cannot perform the essential functions of her job. The Americans with Disabilities Act only requires accommodations that allow the employee to perform such functions. However, earlier this month in an unpublished opinion, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North Carolina and South Carolina), reversed a grant of summary judgment for an employer that rejected the employee’s request for a driver to transport her between sales calls.
In Stephenson v. Pfizer, Inc., the plaintiff was a pharmaceutical sales representative who developed an eye disorder that prevented her from driving. She requested that Pfizer provide her with a driver to take her to and from doctors’ offices. The employer declined, concluding that driving was an essential function of her job, meaning that the company was not required under the ADA to allocate this function to another person. The district court granted summary judgment to the employer on this basis.
The Fourth Circuit disagreed, remanding the case for jury trial. The court determined that a jury should conclude whether driving or traveling is the actual essential job function for the position. It noted that driving is not mentioned in the plaintiff’s job description, and that Pfizer never engaged in an interactive process to determine whether any accommodations could allow the plaintiff to continue to perform her sales calls. The EEOC filed a brief supporting the plaintiff, restating its position that driving, commuting and other ways of getting to the worksite are not of themselves essential job functions.
Even with this victory, the plaintiff has an uphill battle to demonstrate liability under the ADA. The jury may still conclude that driving is an essential function of this position. If it does not, the plaintiff would have to show that Pfizer refused to provide a reasonable accommodation. Hiring a second employee to allow the disabled one to perform her essential job functions is rarely considered reasonable. However, employers faced with accommodation requests that appear outside the scope of the ADA’s requirements should still engage in the interactive process and document both the impact of the accommodation on the employee’s essential functions, as well as the reasonableness of the request.