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Court: Rite Aid was right to fire needle-phobic pharmacist

Rite Aid Corp. won a key victory in its opposition to a jury verdict against the company for firing a pharmacist who wouldn’t administer injections because he suffered from a fear of needles.

A three-judge federal appeals court panel in New York sided with the Cumberland County-based drugstore chain in a ruling issued Tuesday.

Christopher Stevens, an upstate New York pharmacist, had worked for Rite Aid and predecessor companies for 34 years prior to his termination in August 2011.

In April 2011, according to court documents, Rite Aid revised its job description for pharmacists, requiring them to hold a valid immunization certificate. Performing immunizations was listed among “essential duties and responsibilities” for the job.

But Stevens suffered from trypanophobia, a fear of needles and injections.

He obtained a note from his doctor, who wrote that Stevens could not safely deliver injections because he would probably become lightheaded and faint.

Stevens also argued that his condition was a disability covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and he requested reasonable accommodation from Rite Aid.

Company officials replied that the ADA did not apply to trypanophobia, that Rite Aid was not required to accommodate Stevens, and that he would lose his job unless he successfully completed immunization training.

Stevens responded that he would not be able to complete the training, and on Aug. 23, 2011, he was terminated for refusing to perform customer immunizations as an essential job function.

He later sued Rite Aid for wrongful termination under the ADA.

Following trial, a federal jury in Binghamton, N.Y. awarded Stevens more than $1.7 million, which included back-pay of $485,633, front-pay of $1,227,188 and $900,000 in damages, later reduced to $125,000.

In a ruling Tuesday, three justices of the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously overturned the ruling, finding that Rite Aid did not violate the ADA.

The judges wrote that “employers may not discriminate against people with disabilities that do not prevent job performance, but when a disability renders a person unable to perform the essential functions of the job, that disability renders him or her unqualified.”

Furthermore, the judges added, a Rite Aid official testified that the company offered Stevens another position, such as a pharmacy technician role, that would not require administering immunizations. But Stevens offered no evidence that he requested, considered or was open to such a move, they added.

“It is understandable that the jury had sympathy for Stevens, afflicted as he was with an unusual phobia,” the judges wrote. “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.”

Roger DuPuis
Roger DuPuis covers Cumberland County, health care, transportation, distribution, energy and environment. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at rdupuis@cpbj.com.

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