Focus on Job Descriptions to Eliminate Costly Employment Discrimination Lawsuits

How much attention does your company give to developing job descriptions? And what happens if managers come up with job descriptions that are inaccurate or incomplete?

These issues recently took center stage in a lawsuit involving a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act and it did not end well for the employer.

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The ADA Lawsuit

The lawsuit, Stephenson v. Pfizer, was filed in federal court in North Carolina. It involved a former employee, Whitney Stephenson, who worked as a pharmaceutical sales representative for Pfizer for approximately 30 years. She was terminated in November 2011 after an eye disorder rendered her unable to drive to sales meetings with doctors.

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Stephenson contended that the company violated the ADA by summarily denying her request for a driver. Pfizer countered that driving a vehicle is an essential function of Stephenson’s job that she must perform personally.

The district court agreed with Pfizer and dismissed the case. But this decision was reversed on appeal because the Court concluded that based on the job description the plaintiff may be able to show Pfizer should have assigned her a driver as a reasonable accommodation to make sales calls.

Reasonable Accommodations and Essential Job Functions

Under the ADA, it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against a disabled employee who qualifies for protection under the Act. Such discrimination includes an employer’s failure to make “reasonable accommodations” for known disabilities, except where the employer can show that the accommodation “would impose an undue hardship” on the employer’s business operations. 42 U.S.C. § 12112(b)(5)(A).

Importantly, the ADA does not require an employer to reassign any of the essential functions of the disabled employee, nor does it require an employer to hire additional employees to perform an essential function. Instead, the employer must accommodate a disabled employee only when an accommodation “would enable the employee to perform all of the essential functions of her position.”

Both the ADA and the EEOC’s ADA regulations list an employer’s written job description as a factor in determining a position’s essential duties.

Returning to Pfizer, there was no mention of driving in Stephenson’s written job description. Thus, the Court reasoned there was a factual dispute as to whether traveling or driving was essential to Stephenson’s sales position.

What this Case Means for HR

As the Pfizer case illustrates, job descriptions need to be complete and include job functions that may seem apparent, for example “driving” versus “riding.” Being specific is important because an employer is not required to hire an additional employee to perform essential job functions for a disabled employee.

Employers must work with disabled employees to determine what may make up reasonable workplace accommodations for their conditions. But the starting point for this discussion should start with having written job descriptions that specifically set out essential and nonessential job functions for jobs.



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