In some jobs, is driving an essential function? For example, an over-the-road trucker or a bus driver, the answer should be pretty clear. The primary purpose of the job is to transport goods or people from one place to another. Therefore, driving is an essential job function.
But what about your classic “road warrior” (e.g. the travelling outside salesperson)? He has to transport himself from client location to client location (presumably, in most cases, by driving himself in his car). So, that would make driving an essential function of his job too, right?
According to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit – maybe not. In a somewhat surprising decision (Stephenson v. Pfizer, Inc.), the Court ruled that driving might not be an ADA “essential function” in jobs that require a lot of driving but primarily exist for other reasons. This ruling could have a significant impact on those like the travelling salesperson jobs, where the job arguably requires a lot of driving, but the primary purpose of the job is to sell goods to a customer.
The plaintiff in this case was a pharmaceutical representative. This type of job requires a lot of driving because the rep needs to travel between doctor’s offices, but the primary purpose of the job is to make presentations to physicians and encourage them to prescribe drugs made by the rep’s company.
The plaintiff developed an eye condition that rendered her unable to drive and she requested that her employer provide her with a reasonable accommodation (specifically a driver) to help her travel between client locations. The plaintiff was able to perform all other aspects of her job without accommodation.
The employer refused to provide the plaintiff with the requested accommodation, claiming that driving was an essential function of her position and instead offered to place her in a position within the company that did not require driving. The plaintiff did not accept the new position and, instead, filed a lawsuit against the employer for failure to provide reasonable accommodation for her disability.
In denying the employer’s motion for summary judgment (which, if granted, would have dismissed the plaintiff’s case), the Court of Appeal held that the determination of whether driving or travelling was an essential function of the plaintiff’s job would need to be resolved by the jury.
Significance for Employers
While the Court did not reach any conclusion regarding the merits of the plaintiff’s claims, this decision is significant to employers. Under the ADA, an employer is only required to accommodate an employee who is “qualified” (i.e. one who is able to perform the position’s essential functions with or without an accommodation.)
In the case of a “road warrior” employee, if the ability to drive is an essential function of the position, then the employer would not be required to accommodate an employee who cannot drive even with an accommodation. However, if the ability to travel is an essential function (and the ability to drive is not), then the employer would be required to provide an accommodation to make it possible for the employee to travel.
In response to this case, employers with “road warrior” employees should review and, if necessary, update the job descriptions for these employees to ensure that driving is listed as an essential function of the position. While performing this review, also verify that the job description accurately reflects all of the essential functions of the position.
In addition, employers should proceed with caution and consult with an HR Professional or qualified legal counsel before denying a “driving” accommodation. Other jurisdictions (like the Fifth Circuit in EEOC v. LHC Group, Inc.) have reached similar conclusions with respect to this type of employee.