UPDATED: Pfizer gets friendly backing in appeal over blind rep's bid for paid driver

Pfizer CEO Ian Read

In the department of employee lawsuits, Pfizer ($PFE) is the latest drugmaker in the hot seat. But the seat is hotter for the visually impaired sales rep who sued because the company wouldn't provide a driver to ferry her to doctors' offices.

Filed by rep Whitney Stephenson after she developed severe vision problems, the suit claims Pfizer violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by refusing her request. Pfizer had bought special reading glasses and special software for Stephenson's computer--also on request--but obviously, sales reps spend their time on the road, calling on doctors.

Hence the demand for a driver. Pfizer turned back that idea, saying it was unreasonable. The company suggested Stephenson apply to other jobs at the company, including telecommuting positions that would allow her to work from home. But she saw those jobs as a step backward, with lower pay and less responsibility, and asked Pfizer to create a job for her instead.

No dice, so Stephenson went after the company in court. A U.S. district judge tossed out the suit last fall. As the law firm Kollman & Saucier points out in its blog, the ADA specifies that employers don't have to comply with a disabled worker's request if it would be required to hire a new employee to accommodate it. Hiring a driver included.

But Stephenson appealed, and now, the Fourth Circuit is gearing up to hear the case. Pfizer has some help there, too: As Reuters reports, three major business groups filed an amicus brief asking the circuit court to uphold the district judge's ruling. Attorneys for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Federation of Independent Businesses and Equal Employment Advisory Council said in the brief that providing a driver for a job that requires constant traveling is not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

Pfizer agrees, of course, and says it believes the company will prevail on appeal. "Pfizer maintains its position that it complied with the Americans with Disabilities Act and appropriately denied Whitney Stephenson's request for a full-time, personal driver as a reasonable accommodation," spokeswoman Christine Regan Lindenbloom said in an emailed statement. "The company believes the District Court of North Carolina correctly dismissed the case on its motion for summary judgment and that the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals will affirm that decision."

- see the Reuters news
- get more from Kollman's blog

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Editor's note: This article was updated with comments from Pfizer.