MANHATTAN (CN) — Reversing and remanding a $1.8 million jury verdict, the Second Circuit found Tuesday that Rite Aid was justified in firing a needle-phobic pharmacist who refused to administer immunizations.
Christopher Stevens, a pharmacist for Pennsylvania-based Rite Aid, sued for wrongful termination under the Americans with Disabilities Act in 2013. After working for Rite Aid and its predecessors for 34 years, Stevens was fired in August 2011 after Rite Aid revised the job description of its pharmacists to include immunization certification and licensure.
Stevens suffers from trypanophobia, fear of needles, and supplied a note from his physician verifying that Stevens would likely faint at the sight of a needle. It would be unsafe for the patients and for Stevens, the doctor wrote, if he were to administer injections.
In 2015 federal jury in Binghamton, New York, agreed Rite Aid violated the ADA and awarded Stevens $1.7 million in back and front pay, plus $900,000 in damages, later reduced to $125,000. The court denied Rite Aid’s post-trial motion for judgment as a matter of law, but dismissed Steven’s failure to-accommodate claim.
But on Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit agreed that performing immunizations was an essential part of Stevens’s job.
“It is understandable that the jury had sympathy for Stevens, afflicted as he was with an unusual phobia,” Second Circuit Judge Jon Newman wrote for the unanimous court.””Nevertheless, his inability to perform an essential function of his job as a pharmacist is the only reasonable conclusion that could be drawn from the evidence.”
The ADA prevents employers from discriminating against people with disabilities that do not prevent job performance, but the Second Circuit ruled that “when a disability renders a person unable to perform the essential functions of the job, that disability renders him or her unqualified.”
At trial, Stevens offered four accommodations that Rite Aid could have offered him, including desensitization training. But in affirming court’s dismissal, the Second Circuit agreed that Stevens “failed to prove that a reasonable accommodation existed at the time he was terminated, or that he would have accepted an identified accommodation if offered.”
In addition to reversing the court’s post-trial denial of Rite Aid’s motion for judgment as a matter of law and affirming dismissal of Stevens’ failure-to-accommodate claim, the Second Circuit remanded the $1.8 million judgment for entry of a revised judgment in Rite Aid’s favor.