Second Circuit Dismisses ADA Claim Brought by Employee with Needlephobia
On March 21, 2017, the Second Circuit held that Rite Aid could not reasonably accommodate a pharmacist’s fear of needles. In Stevens v. Rite Aid Corporation, No. 15277, the panel dismissed Stevens’ claims of wrongful termination, retaliation and failure to accommodate under the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”), finding that he was unable to perform the essential functions of his job with or without accommodation. In doing so, the court overturned a jury verdict that awarded him $2.6 million.
Rite Aid had implemented a vaccination certification policy for its pharmacists after Stevens’ had been working for the company for 34 years. Stevens submitted medical documentation stating that he had trypanophobia, which caused him to faint or otherwise become sick in the presence of needles, and asked for an accommodation. Although Rite Aid considered his request, it ultimately terminated Stevens for failure to complete the vaccination training. Stevens filed suit against Rite Aid, and a jury awarded Stevens $2.6 million in damages at trial.
On appeal the Second Circuit analyzed whether Rite Aid was obligated to accommodate Stevens’ phobia of needles. The court concluded that “[a] reasonable accommodation can never involve the elimination of an essential function of a job.” The court determined that the company was allowed to include vaccinations as one of the job’s essential functions, and thus, was allowed to terminate an employee for the inability to meet that function.
The panel rejected the accommodations that Stevens had requested. Although Stevens had argued that Rite Aid could have provided desensitization therapy, the court determined that providing medical treatment does not constitute a reasonable accommodation.
Employer Tip Whenever an employer has notice that an employee may have a potential disability or medical condition, best practices is to engage in the interactive process. The Rite Aid decision shows that the interactive process may reveal that an employee may not be able to perform an essential job duty even with an accommodation. In that instance, the employer may not be liable for its inability to accommodate the employees. To further protect against claims of failure to accommodate, it is important for employers to identify essential functions of each position, create written job descriptions and ensure that they are uniformly implemented.