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Fear Not: Employees’ Phobias May Not Relieve Them of Essential Job Duties

April 5, 2017

From agoraphobia to xenophobia, employers should be well aware that there is a long list of phobias—including more common disorders such as social anxiety disorder—that can be considered disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Recently, however, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a $1.8 million jury verdict and ruled that a drug store chain did not violate the ADA when it terminated a pharmacist who suffered from trypanophobia—a fear of needles.  The case, Stevens v. Rite Aid Corporation, No. 15-277(L) (2nd Cir. Mar. 21, 2017), arose from Rite Aid’s 2011 decision to require all pharmacists to give immunization injections to customers. 

After Rite Aid revised the essential functions of its pharmacist job description accordingly, a pharmacist who had worked for the pharmacy for 34 years obtained a doctor’s note stating that he was needle-phobic and unable to administer injections.  Rite Aid engaged in an interactive process with the pharmacist to determine if there was any possible accommodation that would allow the pharmacist to administer injections, but, ultimately, his doctor concluded that there was no such accommodation where the pharmacist could administer the injections safely.  Rite Aid also offered the pharmacist a transfer to another position, which the pharmacist declined.  Ultimately, Rite Aid terminated the pharmacist based on the fact that giving immunizations was an essential function of his job.  The pharmacist filed suit against Rite Aid for wrongful termination, retaliation, and failure to accommodate him under the ADA.

Overturning the jury verdict for the pharmacist, the court of appeals held that Rite Aid had not violated the ADA.  Specifically, the appeals court found that immunization injections were an essential job requirement for Rite Aid pharmacists at the time of the pharmacist’s discharge. The court also found that the pharmacist had failed to prove that a reasonable accommodation existed at the time of his termination, confirming, among other things, that Rite Aid was not required to eliminate an essential function of the pharmacist’s job, such as administering injections, as a reasonable accommodation, nor was it required to force other employees, instead of the pharmacist, to administer the injections.

The case reinforces the principle that there are limits to the burden an employer should have to bear in accommodating employees with disabilities.  It also provides some practical takeaways for employers:

  • Clearly state the essential functions of a position in a job description and amend the job description as needed to reflect any new essential job functions;
  • Engage in an interactive process with employees who provide notice of a potential disability under the ADA;
  • Consider offering a job transfer before terminating employees who cannot perform essential job functions; and
  • Document each step of the decision making process.

With these guidelines in mind, employers can take steps to prepare and protect themselves if, and when, an employee’s disability prevents him or her from performing an essential job function. 

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