On March 9, 2015, NELA joined Disability Rights North Carolina and the National Disability Rights Network to file an amicus brief in support of plaintiff-appellant Whitney Stephenson in the case of Stephenson v. Pfizer, Inc., Case No. 14-2079, pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The issue on appeal is whether the district court erred in interpreting the language of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regarding the nature of the essential functions of the job and the scope of reasonable accommodations as set forth in the statute.
Plaintiff-appellant Whitney Stephenson has worked for Pfizer, Inc. as a pharmaceutical sales representative since 1984. As a pharmaceutical sales representative, Stephenson was required to meet with approximately eight to ten physicians per day to sell them Pfizer products, which meant that she spent up to ninety percent of her time traveling between various physicians’ offices in the Winston-Salem, North Carolina area. In October 2008, Stephenson was diagnosed with a disorder which caused a significant loss of vision in her left eye and the same condition affected her right eye in 2011. By October of that year she was legally blind and unable to drive safely. Stephenson had previously been granted two accommodation requests for magnifying glasses and special computer software. Pfizer rejected Stephenson’s request for a driver to transport her between physicians’ offices on the basis that providing her with a driver would be unreasonable.
Stephenson filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, alleging that Pfizer discriminated against her on the basis of her disability. The court granted Pfizer’s motion for summary judgment, holding that driving is an essential function of the sales representative job and the requested accommodation was unreasonable on its face, i.e., no reasonable accommodation would enable her to drive.
Amici argued in the brief that allowing an employer to conflate the definition of the essential functions of a job with the manner in which such functions are to be performed, as Pfizer did here, “obviates the [employee’s] right to a reasonable accommodation,” which other courts have held similarly. For example, the district court in Nelson v. Thornburg, 567 F. Supp. 369 (E.D. Pa. 1983) held that for the blind social workers in question, “essential functions (e.g., serving clients) were separable from the ability to read without the use of an aid.” Likewise, the Fifth Circuit in Prewitt v. United States Postal Service, 662 F.2d 292 (5th Cir. 1981) held, after considering the language of the ADA, Congressional intent, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commisison’s (EEOC) Guidance, that there is a distinction to be made between the “purpose of the function and the result to be accomplished.” In other words, it is impermissible to limit the way in which an essential function is to be performed such that a person with a disability would be excluded from performing it, unless the manner and essential function are inseparable.
This view should be adopted by the Fourth Circuit, amici urged. Driving a car is not Stephenson’s core duty. Whatever the mode of travel from one physician’s office to another, the end result—selling Pfizer products—will not be disrupted. As stated in the brief, the district court improperly granted summary judgment because its opinion “undermines a central purpose of the ADA not only because it defines essential functions incorrectly, but also because it takes the factual determination from the jury.” Finally, amici argued that the determination of what constitutes the essential functions of the job is a disputed material fact that should be decided by the jury and not the judge on summary judgment. The EEOC filed its own amicus brief in support of Stephenson.