In Stevens v. Rite Aid Corp., No. 15-277 (March 21, 2017), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed a jury award of almost $2 million that had been awarded in favor of a pharmacist who had a fear of needles and could not comply with Rite Aid’s new policy that required pharmacists to administer immunization injections to customers.
In 2011, in an effort to fill a vaccination void in the healthcare market, Rite Aid imposed a new requirement that all pharmacists must administer immunizations. Rite Aid revised its job description, requiring pharmacists to obtain valid immunization certificates and establishing immunizations as a part of the pharmacist’s essential job functions.
The plaintiff had worked for Rite Aid for 34 years. After receiving notice of the new requirement, he presented Rite Aid with a note from his treating physician stating that he suffered from trypanophobia, a fear of needles. His condition caused him to become lightheaded, pale, and feeling that he might faint. The physician stated that the plaintiff could not safely administer an injection since the likelihood that he would faint would be unsafe for both the patient and the plaintiff. Due to his trypanophobia, the plaintiff requested that Rite Aid provide him with a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. A short time later, Rite Aid terminated his employment.
The plaintiff filed a lawsuit claiming wrongful termination, retaliation, and failure to accommodate his disability under the ADA. After a trial, a jury awarded him back pay damages of $485,633, front pay damages of $1,227,188, and compensatory damages of $900,000 reduced by the trial court to $125,000. The parties appealed.
In reversing the jury verdict, the appellate court explained that, in order to state a claim under the ADA, an employee must establish that he was “qualified to perform the essential functions of his job, with or without reasonable accommodation.” The appellate court determined that performing immunizations was an essential function of the plaintiff’s position as a pharmacist and that he could not perform that essential function of his job. The evidence showed that Rite Aid adopted its policy to fill a need in the marketplace for immunizations, that Rite Aid revised its pharmacist job description to include immunization of customers as an essential job function, and that it had terminated the employment of another pharmacist who refused to administer immunizations. The evidence also showed that the plaintiff could not administer immunizations.
The appellate court also determined that the plaintiff failed to prove that a reasonable accommodation existed at the time of his termination. The appellate court rejected the plaintiff’s arguments that Rite Aid could have offered him desensitization therapy, transferred him to a lower-paying pharmacy technician position, or hired a nurse to administer immunizations as reasonable accommodations. The appellate court rejected his suggestion of desensitization therapy because the ADA does not require employers to offer medical treatment as a reasonable accommodation. The appellate court also noted that Rite Aid had offered to transfer him to another position but he did not accept that offer. Finally, the appellate court determined that the ADA did not require Rite Aid to hire a nurse to perform immunizations, which would eliminate an essential job function of the pharmacist position.
This post was co-authored by Valeriya Svystun, legal intern at Robinson+Cole. Valeriya is not yet admitted to practice law.