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Stephenson v. Pfizer Inc.

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

September 8, 2014

WHITNEY C. STEPHENSON, Plaintiff,
v.
PFIZER INC., Defendant

Page 435

For WHITNEY C. STEPHENSON, Plaintiff: ROBERT M. ELLIOT, LEAD ATTORNEY, ELLIOT MORGAN PARSONAGE, P.A., WINSTON-SALEM, NC,.

For PFIZER, INC., Defendant: PAUL HOLSCHER, LEAD ATTORNEY, JACKSON LEWIS LLP, CARY, NC; STEPHANIE E. LEWIS, LEAD ATTORNEY, ANDREAS N. SATTERFIELD, JR., JACKSON LEWIS, LLP, GREENVILLE, SC.

Page 436

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Thomas D. Schroeder, United States District Judge.

Before the court is Defendant's motion for summary judgment, which raises two issues under the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12111 et seq. (" ADA" ): whether driving is an " essential function" of Plaintiff's job as a sales representative and, because Plaintiff is legally blind, whether her employer has a duty to provide a driver or transportation for her as an accommodation. (Doc. 24.) For the reasons set forth below, the court finds that driving is an essential function of Plaintiff's job and that the accommodations requested need not be provided. Therefore,

Page 437

Defendant's motion for summary judgment will be granted and the case dismissed.

I. BACKGROUND

The undisputed facts, viewed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff Whitney Stephenson (" Stephenson" ), as the non-moving party, are as follows:[1]

Stephenson has worked for Pfizer, or its predecessor, since 1984. (Doc. 36-1 ¶ 5.) Specifically, she has been a pharmaceutical sales representative, sharing information about Pfizer's pharmaceutical products with medical professionals. (Id. ¶ ¶ 6-7.) By all accounts, she was very successful. (Id. ¶ ¶ 8-10.)

In October 2008, Stephenson developed a serious disorder in her left eye and was diagnosed with non-arteritic ischemic optic neuropathy, due to a lack of blood flow to her optic nerve. (Id. ¶ 16.) She lost significant vision in that eye but was able to continue working at Pfizer without accommodation. (Id.)

In October 2011, however, Stephenson developed problems with her vision in her right eye. (Id. ¶ 14.) She was diagnosed with the same condition in that eye and, following unsuccessful treatment, her vision significantly deteriorated to the point that it became unsafe and no longer possible for her to drive. (Id. ¶ ¶ 15-18, 26.) The decline stabilized, but the damage is irreversible. (Id. ¶ 16.) Unable to drive, Stephenson filed for disability benefits with Pfizer and sought an accommodation through Pfizer's human resources department.(Id. ¶ ¶ 19, 26.)

Stephenson's job required her to meet with physicians in person to sell Pfizer products. (Doc. 25-2 at 52.) She typically met with approximately eight to ten physicians per day, covering a large territory in Forsyth County and nearby cities in other counties. (Id. at 44, 52.) Because she spent up to 90% of her time traveling, Pfizer did not provide her with an office but with a company car. (Id. at 53-55.) Stephenson could not rely on public transportation to do her job, and she does not believe she can presently do her job without some form of arranged transportation. (Id. at 56-57, 92, 187-88.)Stephenson, like all of Pfizer's North Carolina sales representatives, had always performed her job by driving herself between doctors' offices. (Id. at 55.)

After Stephenson's vision declined, she requested accommodations from Pfizer for her disability in the form of magnifying glasses for reading and special software for her computer, both of which Pfizer granted. (Doc. 25-3 at 5; Doc. 25-8 at 2.) Stephenson also requested that Pfizer employ a third-party driver to transport her to physicians' offices. (Doc. 25-3 at 5; 25-4 at 3.) The driver would assist Stephenson on a permanent, full-time basis. (Doc. 25-2 at 95-96.) Pfizer rejected this accommodation as unreasonable. (Doc. 25-8 at 2.)

Communication between Stephenson and Pfizer representatives continued, with Stephenson continuing to seek a driver as an accommodation and Pfizer continuing to reject the proposal. Pfizer recommended that Stephenson apply for various other positions within the company, including a telecommuting position that would not require her to drive or leave her home.

Page 438

(Doc. 25-11 at 2; Doc. 25-2 at 119-21.) In addition, Pfizer invited Stephenson to apply for any of the company's internal job postings; at any given time " hundreds" of such vacant positions exist. (Doc. 25-6 at 27.) Stephenson decided not to apply for any open positions because she thought they required her to accept a substantial decrease in salary and were not commensurate with her level of skill and experience. (Doc. 25-2 at 124, 127-28, 136-37; Doc. 36-1 at ¶ ¶ 48-49.) Instead, either on her own or at the prompting of a supervisor, she proposed two possible accommodations in the form of new positions within Pfizer that did not yet exist (a trainer and a " key contacts" representative). (Doc. 25-2 at 130-32.) Pfizer determined that there was insufficient business to create either of these proposed jobs. (Doc. 25-6 at 58-60.) Stephenson also emailed the Chief Executive Officer of Pfizer under the company's open door policy to report her disagreement with the company's decision not to hire a driver for her. (Doc. 25-2 at 148-52; 25-14.) The company stood by its decision. Following a period of short-term disability coverage, Pfizer ultimately placed Stephenson on long-term disability with 60% of her pay and has not terminated her. (Doc. 25-2 at 175-78.)

Stephenson filed the present complaint alleging one cause of action - disability discrimination under the ADA. In her complaint, Stephenson alleges that Pfizer discriminated against her because of her disability by failing to engage in a good-faith, interactive process to reach a reasonable accommodation; by failing to consider reassignment to a comparable position; and by denying her proposed accommodations. (Compl. ¶ 44.)

After discovery, Pfizer filed the present motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 24.) With Stephenson's response (Doc. 35) and Pfizer's reply (Doc. 45), the motion is ripe for consideration.

II. ANALYSIS

A. Standard of Review


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