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A federal appeals court reversed a $1.8 million judgment against Rite Aid, concluding the company lawfully fired a pharmacist who was too afraid of needles to give immunization injections to customers.
The U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals said Christopher Stevens was fired because he couldn't do the job. A jury had concluded the company discriminated against the pharmacist because of his phobia, but the appeals court set aside the verdict in Stevens v. Rite Aid Corporation.
"It is understandable that the jury had sympathy for Stevens, afflicted as he was with an unusual phobia," Judge Jon O. 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."
Trypanophobia: Fear of Needles
The case arose in 2011, when Stevens was working at a Rite Aid pharmacy in upstate New York. He had worked for the company and its predecessors for 34 years.
In March that year, a district manager informed Stevens that the company was requiring all pharmacists to give immunization shots to customers. Stevens said he could not do it because he was "needle phobic."
He asked for accommodations, such as providing a nurse to do the injections, but the company fired him instead because it was part of his job and could not be delegated. He sued for wrongful termination under the Americans With Disabilities Act.
At trial, his doctors testified that trypanophobia caused Stevens to become lightheaded, dizzy and anxious when faced with needles. A psychologist said it also caused his blood pressure to rise, loss of concentration and fainting.
A jury found that Stevens lost his job due to his disability, and awarded him about $2.6 million. The damages were reduced to $1.8 million after a post-trial hearing.
On appeal, Rite Aid's lawyers convinced the court that the company had no duty to accommodate Stevens. He had asked for a nurse or to be excluded from performing injections, but the appeals court said those were not reasonable accommodations and reversed.
"It is important to bear in mind that the issue is whether a reasonable accommodation would have enabled him to perform that essential function, not whether, as some of Stevens' arguments appear to suggest, he could perform his other duties as a pharmacist," the court said, citing Shannon v. New York City Transit.