Employees phobias may not relieve them of essential job duties

An employment law expert offers insight into the legal limits of the ADA.

Ashley Parr

From agoraphobia to xenophobia, employers
should be well aware that there is a long list of phobias—including more common
disorders such as social anxiety disorder—that can be considered disabilities
under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Recently, however, the
Second Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a $1.8 million jury verdict and
ruled that a drug store chain did not violate the ADA when it terminated a
pharmacist who suffered from trypanophobia—a fear of needles. The case, Stevens
v. Rite Aid Corporation, arose from Rite Aid’s 2011 decision to require all
pharmacists to give immunization injections to customers. After Rite Aid revised the essential functions
of its pharmacist job description accordingly, a pharmacist who had worked for
the pharmacy for 34 years obtained a doctor’s note stating that he was
needle-phobic and unable to administer injections. Rite Aid engaged in an
interactive process with the pharmacist to determine if there was any possible
accommodation that would allow the pharmacist to administer injections, but,
ultimately, his doctor concluded that there was no such accommodation where the
pharmacist could administer the injections safely. Rite Aid also offered
the pharmacist a transfer to another position, which the pharmacist
declined. Ultimately, Rite Aid terminated the pharmacist based on the
fact that giving immunizations was an essential function of his job. The
pharmacist filed suit against Rite Aid for wrongful termination, retaliation,
and failure to accommodate him under the ADA.Overturning the jury verdict for the
pharmacist, the court of appeals held that Rite Aid had not violated the
ADA. Specifically, the appeals court found that immunization injections
were an essential job requirement for Rite Aid pharmacists at the time of the
pharmacist’s discharge. The court also found that the pharmacist had failed to
prove that a reasonable accommodation existed at the time of his termination,
confirming, among other things, that Rite Aid was not required to eliminate an
essential function of the pharmacist’s job, such as administering injections,
as a reasonable accommodation, nor was it required to force other employees,
instead of the pharmacist, to administer the injections.The case reinforces the principle that there are
limits to the burden an employer should have to bear in accommodating employees
with disabilities. It also provides some practical takeaways for
Clearly state the essential functions of a
position in a job description and amend the job description as needed to
reflect any new essential job functions; Engage in an interactive process with employees
who provide notice of a potential disability under the ADA; Consider offering a job transfer before
terminating employees who cannot perform essential job functions; and Document each step of the decision making
process.With these guidelines in mind, employers can take steps to prepare and
protect themselves if, and when, an employee’s disability prevents him or her
from performing an essential job function.