Driving May Not Be Essential Job Function of Traveling Salesperson

By Marc Sugerman Mar 30, 2016
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Driving is not necessarily an essential function of a sales position requiring extensive travel, according to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Traveling pharmaceutical sales representative Whitney Stephenson worked for Pfizer Inc. for nearly 30 years and was one of the company’s top sales representatives. Stephenson’s job required her to travel to and from doctors’ offices to sell pharmaceutical products, but her job description did not list driving as an essential function. Pfizer provided Stephenson with a company car to drive to and from sales meetings. 

Stephenson developed an eye condition that caused her vision to deteriorate. She was eventually unable to drive and requested that Pfizer provide her a driver to take her to and from sales meetings. Pfizer denied Stephenson’s request for a driver, stating that the ability to drive an automobile was an essential function of the job of a salesperson and that hiring a driver was “inherently unreasonable.” 

Stephenson sued Pfizer, alleging that the company violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by failing to accommodate her disability. The district court granted summary judgment, finding that the ability to drive an automobile was an essential function of Stephenson’s job as a salesperson. Because Stephenson could not drive a car with any accommodation, the court held that Pfizer did not violate the ADA (and did not fail to accommodate Stephenson’s disability) when it denied Stephenson’s request for a driver.

On appeal, the 4th Circuit reversed the district court’s decision, noting that it was not clear whether the ability to drive was an essential function of Stephenson’s sales position. The court emphasized that Stephenson’s job description said nothing about driving or even possessing a driver’s license. Thus, while there was some evidence that being able to drive was essential for a salesperson, there was also some evidence that a salesperson only needed to be able to travel. 

The court sent the case back to the district court to determine whether driving or traveling was an essential function of Stephenson’s job. If driving was an essential function, then Pfizer did not violate the ADA because Stephenson could not drive with any accommodation. If only the ability to travel was required, however, then Pfizer may have had an obligation to offer Stephenson a driver or some other accommodation.

Stephenson v. Pfizer, Inc., 4th Cir., No. 14-2079 (March 2, 2016). 

Professional Pointer: Employers should be cautious in drafting job descriptions, ensuring that all essential functions are listed and precisely worded.

Marc Sugerman is an attorney with Allen, Norton & Blue, P.A., the Worklaw® Network member firm in Winter Park, Fla.

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