Blind Pfizer sales rep gets her chance to argue for a car and driver in court

Last year, Pfizer ($PFE) successfully fought off a blind sales rep's demand for a car and driver to take her on her sales rounds. But now, a federal appeals court says the rep's claims deserve a hearing before a jury.

A high-performing sales rep, Whitney Stephenson, had sued Pfizer under the Americans with Disabilities Act after losing 60% of her sight to an eye disease. Pfizer won on summary judgment at the district court, but the Fourth Circuit reversed that ruling, saying that there are factual questions that need a hearing.

"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 traveling," the opinion said. "That factual dispute is for a jury to resolve."

At issue is whether driving is an "essential function" of Stephenson's sales job: Pfizer contends that it is, and if so, the company legally could deny the car-and-driver request and attempt to reassign her to a new, non-driving post. Stephenson claims that "traveling" is required, but not "driving."

The circuit panel delved into the "essential function" question and found conflicting evidence. For instance, the court's opinion points out that driving--or even possessing a driver's license--was not part of her job description. But, the circuit said, other job postings for sales reps specifically required applicants to have a driver's license.

Pfizer had provided some special equipment to Stephenson after her vision was compromised, including special software and high-powered reading glasses. But it drew the line at the car, and instead suggested that she apply for other jobs at the company, including telecommuting jobs that would allow her to work at home. But Stephenson had been a "Hall of Fame" sales rep at Pfizer, and she saw the other jobs as a step backward, with lower pay and less responsibility.

There's also the question of whether a car and driver would be a "reasonable accommodation" under the ADA. In its opinion, the appellate court noted that 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--in this case, a driver--to accommodate it.

When Pfizer won summary judgment, the company said that it had "appropriately denied Whitney Stephenson's request for a full-time, personal driver as a reasonable accommodation," spokeswoman Christine Regan Lindenboom said in an emailed statement. Now, a jury will have a chance to decide whether it agrees.

- read the appellate court's opinion (PDF)

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