In a case currently before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, the court will tackle the important question of when and whether the manner of performing an essential function of one’s job is distinguishable from the essential function itself.  The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) requires that employers provide reasonable accommodations to disabled employees to allow them to be able to perform the essential functions of a job.

In Stephenson v. Pfizer, Inc., Plaintiff Whiney Stephenson sued Pfizer under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) after the company failed to accommodate her loss of vision. Stephenson had served as a pharmaceutical sales representative for Pfizer for 27 years when she became legally blind due to a disorder that led to her gradual loss of vision. After requesting a driver to transport her between physicians’ offices, the company refused, claiming that Stephenson could no longer perform an essential function of the job of sales representative – driving. The district court granted summary judgment to the employer and Stephenson appealed.

On appeal, Stephenson argues that Pfizer conflated the essential function of her job with the manner in which she performed that essential function. She argues that it is a violation of the ADA and the ADA’s purpose 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. In her case, the company limited the way for her to perform the essential function of selling the company’s products by requiring that she be able to operate a motor vehicle. In agreeing with the company’s position, the lower court, in Stephenson’s opinion, did a disservice to the ADA by ignoring its core purpose of allowing a disabled person to perform a job in a different manner than a non-disabled person.

Stephenson also argues that the court erred in granting summary judgment to the employer because the determination of what constitutes the essential functions of a job is a factual determination for a jury to make.

We will follow this case closely as it progresses because of its great potential to impact future ADA cases here in North Carolina.