Monday, February 16, 2015

Jury Takes a Shot at Rite Aid for Firing Pharmacist with Needle Phobia

When you think of the work of a pharmacist, do you think of administering immunizations? Pharmacy chain Rite Aid did when it jumped on board the walk in clinic craze of the last ten years. When the company wanted to start offering flu shots and other immunizations to its customers, it notified all of its pharmacists that they would be required to undergo training to administer these shots.  That presented a big problem to Christopher Stevens, a 34 year veteran pharmacist working for the company with excellent evaluations.

It turns out that Stevens has a genuine needle phobia. Just the sight of a needle makes him sweat, shake, turn pale and feel anxious and faint. The disorder has a name – trypanophobia. When he received notice in 2011, along with the other Rite Aid pharmacists, directing him to undergo training to obtain a certificate to administer immunizations, he promptly provided the company’s HR department with a note from his physician describing his trypanophobia and advising that Stevens could not undertake the training or administer immunization shots. Stevens himself made a request for a reasonable accommodation under the ADA as a result of his disorder, including the suggestion that customers could go to nearly Rite Aids for immunizations. The company did not relent on the training directive. The day after submitting his physician’s note, company representatives visited Stevens at his assigned store and told him that if he did not attend the training, he would be fired. He refused. Shortly thereafter, they made good on their promise, and discharged Stevens for failure to attend immunization training.

Stevens filed a charge of disability discrimination with the EEOC. The agency made a determination that trypanophobia is a disability under the ADA and brought suit against Rite Aid for violating the Act for failure to accommodate Steven’s disability and for discharging him for failure to attend the immunization training.

A New York federal court jury found in favor of Stevens late last month on his disability discrimination claim. The clincher seems to have been that when Stevens was hired by the company, it did not offer immunizations to customers and so administering injections was not part of the job description, but Rite Aid rewrote its pharmacist job description in 2011, and administering immunization shots was not included among the 16 enumerated essential functions of the job, despite the fact that the company had its immunization program in place by then. The jury awarded a whopping $2.6 million to Stevens, representing lost wages and compensation for emotional damages.

It seems almost certain that Rite Aid will appeal, but the verdict is a harsh reminder to employers to ensure that job descriptions remain not only current but accurate. While Rite Aid correctly argued that the ADA does not allow employees to avoid performing the essential functions of their jobs, the company still faced the problem that it had failed to identify administering injections as such.  Whether listing such as an essential function of a pharmacist’s job would have carried the day for the company is unclear, doing so would have been a “shot in the arm” for its defense.