In Stephenson v. Pfizer, Inc., the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that a trial court erred in granting summary judgment in an Americans with Disabilities Act case, and that a jury may determine whether Pfizer has to hire a driver for a visually impaired sales representative. The case highlights the importance of robust written job descriptions and the lengths to which employers may be required to go to provide accommodations.
The plaintiff, Whitney Stephenson, worked for Pfizer for years as a pharmaceutical sales representative. Pfizer provided Stephenson with a company car, and she spent the vast majority of her time “on the road” in North Carolina driving herself to and from doctor’s offices to market Pfizer’s pharmaceutical products to primary care physicians.
Stephenson developed a degenerative eye disorder that left her unable to drive. When Stephenson asked Pfizer to provide a driver to take her to and from sales calls, the company declined on the basis that driving was an essential function of the position and that it would not be a reasonable accommodation to hire a driver for her. The district court agreed that driving was an essential function of Stephenson’s sales representative position, and granted summary judgment in Pfizer’s favor.
The Fourth Circuit, however, reversed, finding that there was a dispute about whether “driving” or merely “traveling” was the essential function of the position. The Court emphasized that written job descriptions serve as evidence of essential functions of a job and that Pfizer’s written job description for the sales representative position did not identify “driving” or maintaining a driver’s license as an essential function. Moreover, the Court rejected Pfizer’s alternate basis for summary judgment, noting that if driving were not an essential function of Stephenson’s position, a genuine dispute of fact existed regarding whether hiring a driver would have been a reasonable accommodation.
The Stephenson decision holds a couple of important lessons for employers. First, given how heavily the written job description can weigh in the analysis of essential functions, employers are well-advised to include all of the essential functions of the position in the job description and to review and update job descriptions regularly. Most directly relevant to Court’s analysis in Stephenson, employers should ensure that the job description for any position that requires an employee to drive specifically lists driving as an essential function. Second, the Fourth Circuit’s willingness to let a jury determine if hiring a driver for Stephenson would have been reasonable should serve as a stark reminder to employers of the need to engage in a good faith interactive process with employees who request accommodation because of a disability.