Skip to content

2d Circuit Court of Appeals reverses $2.6 million jury verdict in disability discrimination case

A pharmacist was terminated after he claimed he was unable to administer vaccinations to customers.  Christopher Stevens sued Rite Aid for discrimination, retaliation and failure to accommodate under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other state non-discrimination laws.  The jury awarded him $2.6 million, including $900,000 in non-economic damages.

By way of background, Rite Aid revised the job description for its pharmacists to require an immunization certification and made administering vaccinations an essential function of the job. Stevens, who suffers from trypanophobia (fear of needles), claimed he was disabled under the ADA and requested a reasonable accommodation excusing him from giving injections.  Rite Aid determined that Stevens was not disabled under the ADA, and therefore, it was not required to offer him reasonable accommodation. Instead, Rite Aid informed Stevens that if he did not comply with the vaccination requirement, he would be terminated. Stevens was thereafter discharged for refusing to perform an essential function of his job. For full text of decision click here.

A “qualified individual” under the ADA is one who can “perform the essential functions of the job with or without accommodation.” The Second Circuit determined that Stevens was not a qualified individual under the ADA because he could not administer injections, an essential function of his job, even with accommodation.  In determining whether a job duty or responsibility is an “essential function”, the courts consider the employer’s judgment, job description, amount of time performing the function, the collective bargaining agreement,  and work experience of past and current employees in that position.  Although no one factor is dispositive, an employer’s judgment is given considerable deference.  The Court determined that administration of immunizations was an essential function of Stevens’ job.

The Court also determined the obligation to provide a reasonable accommodation (absent undue hardship) does not require elimination of the essential function for the employee.  Further, while an employer who is aware of a disability is required to engage in an interactive dialogue with the employee, failure to do so will not be the basis for liability where there is no evidence a reasonable accommodation exists that would allow the employee to perform the essential function in question.

The Court concluded that “no juror could reasonably conclude that Stevens was qualified to perform the essential functions of his job with or without reasonable accommodation” and therefore his disability discrimination claim must fail.  Further, Stevens’ retaliation claim must also fail because his inability to perform an essential function of his job was a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for his termination.

This case underscores the importance of drafting good job descriptions that identify the essential functions of a position, as well as periodic review and update of job descriptions to reflect current duties and responsibilities.  Also important is the evaluation of an employee’s request for accommodation and participation in the interactive dialogue where appropriate.  In this case, the company’s attention to these issues turned out to be the difference between a $2.6 million judgment and a determination of no liability.