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Monday, August 21, 2017

Pharmacist’s needle phobia loses to well drafted job description

As soon as Christopher Stevens turned 16, he got a job at Carl’s Drugs, and he remained employed continuously by Carl’s Drugs and its successors, which included Rite Aid, for the next 41 years. Stevens’ job included providing medication safely to customers, ensuring that medications were stored properly, providing appropriate information to customers regarding their prescriptions and fielding medical questions.

In March of 2011, Stevens received an e-mail from the district manager which informed all pharmacists that Rite Aid was going to require them to start giving immunization shots to customers. Doubting his ability to give shots as a result of his lifelong fear of needles, Stevens consulted Rite Aid’s employee handbook, which included a provision regarding the accommodation of employees with disabilities in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Stevens provided Rite Aid with a note from his treating physician who explained that Stevens’ suffers from trypanophobia2 (“needle phobia”) and informed Rite Aid that as a consequence Stevens could not give injections. Notwithstanding, Rite Aid directed him to undergo immunization training and ignored his request for an accommodation for his disability.

Stevens heard nothing further from Rite Aid until two months later, when Rite Aid’s Human Resources Department faxed Stevens a list of five questions that he wanted his doctor to answer regarding Stevens’ phobia and the doctor responded with a note indicating that if Stevens were to administer an injection, “[h]e would become diaphoretic, hypotensive and probably faint. He advised Rite Aid that Stevens could not safely administer an injection, since the likelihood that he would faint would be “unsafe for the patient and Mr. Stevens.”

On August 18, 2011, several Rite Aid managers came into the pharmacy where Stevens was working and told him that Rite Aid had concluded that the ADA did not apply to his trypanophobia, that they were not required to make any accommodation for him and, that if he did not successfully complete immunization training and start giving injections, he would lose his job. No accommodation or alternate position was offered or even discussed at that meeting. The following week, Stevens was terminated by a letter.

Stevens brought an action against Rite Aid, asserting claims for wrongful termination because of a disability, retaliation, and failure to provide a reasonable accommodation for his disability in violation of both the ADA and a similar New York State law. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Stevens and awarded back-pay damages of $485,633.00, front-pay damages of $1,227,188.00 and non-pecuniary damages of $900,000. The Second Circuit reversed and ruled in favor of Rite Aid finding that Rite Aid’s designation of a job duty as an “essential function” is essentially dispositive, absent clear and convincing evidence to the contrary by the employee. This week Stevens filed a petition for certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court claiming the 2nd Circuit was wrong to not use a 7 part test.

Common Sense Counsel: The case is a lesson for all employers on the weight a well drafted job description has with the courts. Have them for all positions so you will not get jury phobia.

Tommy Eden is a partner working out of the Constangy, Brooks & Smith, LLP offices in Opelika, AL and West Point, GA and a member of the ABA Section of Labor and Employment Law and serves on the Board of Directors for the East Alabama SHRM Chapter. He can be contacted at or 334-246-2901. Blog at