A federal jury in New York has awarded a long-time pharmacist at Rite Aid $2.61 million after the drugstore fired him for refusing to take part in flu immunization training due to his fear of needles.
Plaintiff Christopher Stevens established that he had worked successfully as a pharmacist for 30 years, including 14 years at Rite Aid and a predecessor, without being required to administer injections. When Rite Aid informed him in 2011 that he was required to attend flu immunization training, including the administration of injections, Stevens informed the company, via a doctor’s note, that he had trypanophobia, or fear of needles. Trypanophobia is recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, and caused Stevens to experience profuse sweating, low blood pressure, pallor and anxiety when undergoing or observing procedures involving the use of needles, according to the evidence. (Note to self: I wasn’t a crybaby at those doctor’s visits as a child, I had trypanophobia.)
Stevens requested an accommodation to avoid administering flu immunizations. Despite the doctor’s note and the request, Rite Aid continued to schedule Stevens for training, and ultimately fired him when he refused to undergo the training.
On January 22, a jury awarded Stevens $485,633 in back pay, $1,227,188 in front pay, and $900,000 in emotional distress damages.
The lesson: The Americans with Disabilities Act, as amended, and the New York State Human Rights Law can be interpreted broadly to cover rare conditions such as fear of needles. Before you get “stuck” for failure to accommodate, “immunize” your company by taking steps to determine whether a reported condition might qualify as a disability, entitling the employee to reasonable accommodations and freedom from discrimination or retaliation.
Michael Homans is a Labor & Employment attorney and founding partner of HomansPeck LLC. For more employment law updates, including news and links to important information pertaining to legal developments that may affect your business, subscribe to Michael’s blog, or follow him on Twitter @EmployLawUpdate.