Can fear of an aspect of your job constitute a disability under the ADA? Depends on how essential the function is. In Stevens v. Rite Aid Corp, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals looked at the case of a Rite Aid pharmacist, Christopher Stevens, who suffered from trypanophobia—-fear of needles.

Factual Background.

In 2011, Rite Aid decided that all pharmacists had to give immunization injections to customers and revised the essential functions on the job description to include a valid immunization certificate. Stevens (who had worked as a Rite Aid pharmacist for 34 years) promptly went to his treating physician and got a note stating that if required to use a needle to give an immunization, he would suffer from lightheadedness, paleness and may faint. Rite Aid engaged in an interactive process—seeking additional information about what, if any, accommodation would enable Stevens to administer injections. The doctor essentially said there were none and went on to note that the possibility of Stevens fainting might be unsafe for the customers and Stevens.

In response, Rite Aid told Stevens that his phobia was not covered by the ADA and that giving immunizations was now an essential function of his job. Since he could not perform that function, Stevens was terminated. He filed suit against Rite Aid for wrongful termination, retaliation, and failure to accommodate him under the ADA and a jury awarded him over $2 million dollars. Rite Aid asked the district court to set aside the verdict. The Court reduced part of the verdict and dismissed the failure to accommodate claim. Both Stevens and Rite Aid appealed that decision. The Second Circuit sided with Rite Aid.

The Court’s Legal Analysis.

The Second Circuit first focused on Rite Aid’s essential function argument. Under the ADA, if an employer claims that a particular job function is essential, the Court must review the evidence to see if that is true. The Second Circuit found that the evidence was uncontradicted that Rite Aid made a business decision to start requiring pharmacists to perform immunizations and that it revised its job description for pharmacists to include that as an essential duty. Stevens did not present adequate evidence to show that the immunization duty was not essential.

Next, the Second Circuit looked to see if there was a reasonable accommodation that would enable Stevens to perform the essential function of giving injections. The Court noted the important distinction that it is not whether Stevens could adequately perform other aspects of his job—he had to show that there was a way that he could perform the injection essential function. At the lower court, Stevens had argued that Rite Aid could have provided him “desensitization therapy, “ but there was no authority that providing medical treatment is a reasonable accommodation and Stevens could not show that he would have even gone through that therapy. Stevens also argued that he could have been transferred to another position that did not require him to give injections. However, the proof showed that Rite Aid offered him such a position and he chose not to take it. Finally, Stevens argued that Rite Aid could have either hired a nurse to give his required injections or paired him with another pharmacist who could do so. The district court found (and the Second Circuit agreed) that Rite Aid was not required to eliminate the essential function from Stevens’ position, nor were they required to force other employees to do it instead of Stevens. As such, Stevens failed to show that any reasonable accommodation existed that would allow him to perform the essential function of administering injections. Therefore, his ADA claim was properly dismissed.

Practical Takeaways.

This case, although with a unique set of facts, emphasizes the importance of clearly stating the essential functions of a position. Rite Aid was successful because it did a lot of things right:

  • It showed that it made a business decision to include immunizations as a service to its customers.
  • It amended the pharmacist job description to reflect the new essential job function.
  • It engaged in the interactive process—asking what, if any, reasonable accommodations would enable Stevens to get the job done.
  • Importantly, Rite Aid offered Stevens a transfer—which he turned down.

This case shows that there are some disabilities that employers simply cannot accommodate. This decision also shows just how important it is for employers to engage in the interactive process with their employees to explore the possibilities and be able to document the decision making process.