Fear of Needles Leads to Jury Verdict for Pharmacist

Clifford Geiger
Clifford Geiger

On January 23, 2015, a federal jury New York awarded a former Rite Aid pharmacist Christopher Stevens $2.6 million in damages on a claim he brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the New York State Human Rights Law.

Stevens has a fear of needles, which is otherwise known as trypanophobia. Stevens alleged that when receiving and witnessing injections, and observing surgical procedures involving the use of needles, he exhibited symptoms that included diaphoresis, hypotension, pallor, and anxiety.

Stevens had worked as a pharmacist for Rite Aid or its predecessor company since 1997, but his fear of needles did not present a difficulty until March 2011, when Rite Aid sent Stevens an email indicating that all pharmacists would need to become certified to provide immunizations for the purpose of administering flu vaccine to customers. When Stevens learned of this new requirement, he contacted his physician and asked for a note stating that he is needle phobic and cannot administer injections. Stevens subsequently sent Rite Aid a letter saying he had a disability that prevented him from administering immunizations. At the time, Stevens had never been formally diagnosed or treated for trypanophobia, but his doctor was aware of his fear.

Stevens requested an accommodation (i.e., being excused from becoming certified to provide immunizations), and he noted that that other close by Rite Aid stores could provide flu shots to customers who wanted them. Although there was a dispute about the extent of any discussion that took place about the requested accommodation, it was undisputed that in the end Stevens was told that he must undergo the immunization certification training or his employment would be terminated. When Stevens repeated that his disability prevented him from attending the training his employment was terminated the next day.

Rite Aid tried two legal defenses. First, that needle phobia was not a recognized disability, and that Steven was not substantially limited any major life activity. This is a difficult argument to make since the ADA was amended in 2008 to provide that a major life activities include the operation of major bodily functions, including for example, brain function. Second, Rite Aid argued that requesting to be excused from an essential function of the job, in this case administering injections, was not a request for a reasonable accommodation.

In fact, an employer need not excuse an employee with a disability from performing an essential job function. Employers and employees are supposed to work together to find an accommodation that allows an employee with a disability to perform (rather than avoid) essential job functions. Rite Aid made a legitimate business decision that immunizing would be an essential job function and requirement for all of its pharmacists across the country. As the Pharmacy Manager, Stevens was responsible for building the pharmacy business, including through immunizations and this was included in his job description. So while the job description, at a minimum, implied that administering injections and performing immunizations were among the Pharmacy Manager’s essential job functions, apparently these duties were not specifically identified as among those the Pharmacy Manager had to perform personally.

The Court denied Rite Aid’s motion for summary judgment, and the jury subsequently sided with Stevens.

The case is  Stevens v. Rite Aid Corp., N.D.N.Y., No. 6:13-cv-00783.

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