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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.
John H. Geaney, Esq., is an Executive Committee Member and a Shareholder in Capehart Scatchard's Workers’ Compensation Group. Mr. Geaney concentrates his practice in the representation of employers, self-insured companies, third-party administrators, and insurance carriers in workers’ compensation, the Americans with Disabilities Act and Family and Medical Leave Act. Should you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Mr. Geaney at 856.914.2063 or by e‑mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.