Blind Sales Representative Not Entitled To A Driver As An Accommodation

Clifford Geiger
Clifford Geiger

A federal court in North Carolina has ruled that a pharmaceutical company need not provide a legally blind sales representative with a driver as a reasonable accommodation. Stephenson v. Pfizer, Inc. No. 1:13cv147 (M.D.N.C. Sept. 8, 2014)  

Whitney Stephenson worked for Pfizer as a pharmaceutical sales representative. Stephenson’s job required her to meet with physicians to sell Pfizer products. She typically met with eight to ten physicians a day, and spent 90% of her time traveling. Stephenson, like Pfizer’s other sales representatives, had always performed her job by driving herself between doctors’ offices. Pfizer provided her with a company car, but not an office.

Unfortunately, Stephenson developed vision problems. Her vision declined to the point where it was not safe and it was no longer possible for her to drive. Although the decline in Stephenson’s vision stabilized, the damage to her eyes is irreversible. When she was ready to return to work, Stephenson requested accommodations for her disability, including magnifying glasses for reading and special software for her computer. Pfizer granted both of these accommodations. Stephenson also requested that Pfizer hire a driver to transport her to physicians’ offices. Pfizer rejected this last request as unreasonable.

Pfizer continued the discussion with Stephenson, and suggested that she apply for other positions, including a telecommuting position that would not require her to drive or leave home. Stephenson was also invited to apply for hundreds of vacant jobs. Stephenson did not apply for any of the open positions, because she though they required her to accept a decrease in salary and were not commensurate with her skills and experience. Instead, Stephenson suggested that Pfizer create two new positions. Pfizer decided there was insufficient business to create either of these two new positions.

Stephenson sued, essentially claiming that Pfizer failed to accommodate her disability. In this type of case, the employee has the initial burden of establishing that she can perform the essential functions of her position with a reasonable accommodation. Pfizer argued, and the court agreed, that driving was an essential function of Stephenson’s job as a sales representative. Stephenson wanted to characterize the essential functions of her position more broadly, arguing that “travelling” is essential to her job, but that driving as the particular method of travel is not. The Court declined to go there, reasoning essentially that the job cannot be done without driving.

If driving is an essential function of the position, the next issue is whether Stephenson can perform all of the essential functions with a reasonable accommodation. In deciding whether an accommodation is reasonable, an employer is not required to: (a) reallocate essential functions to other employees; (b) hire someone else to perform an essential function of a disabled employee’s position; or (c) exempt an employee with a disability from performing an essential job function. So, Pfizer did not have to hire an additional person, in this case a driver, to perform the driving part of Stephenson’s job. Additionally, while reassignment to a different position may be a reasonable accommodation, an employer is not required to create a new position to make that happen.

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