shotYou don’t need to look for a needle in a haystack to figure out this latest case from the Second Circuit.

But you do need to know what “trypanophobia” is.

Ready? Fear of needles.

That becomes important in a Second Circuit court decision yesterday holding that an employee’s fear of needles prevented that employee from performing an essential function of his job and rejecting his disability discrimination claim.

The background of Stevens v. Rite Aid Corp. (download here)  is fairly straightforward as cases go.  As you’ve probably noticed of late, many of the big pharmacy chains have been requiring pharmacists to perform immunizations in order to fill an unmet need for vaccinations in the health care market.

In April 2011, Rite Aid revised its job descriptions for pharmacists to require them to hold a valid immunization certification and noted that immunizations were part of the pharmacists’ essential duties and responsibilities.

The plaintiff in the above case worked as a pharmacist for 34 years.  When the job description was changed, he received a note from his physician explaining that the employee was “needle phobic and cannot administer immunization by injection.”  When he refused to perform that role (and I’m simplifying for purposes of a blog post), Rite Aid terminated his employment.

A trial did not go well for Rite Aid.  A jury determined that the employee had been discriminated against and awarded over $2M in damages.

Hence the appeal.

In reviewing the matter, the the Second Circuit rejected an employee’s disability discrimination claim because the evidence “compels a finding that immunization injections were an essential job requirement.”

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

The court also looked at whether there was a reasonable accommodation that could have been provided to him.  But the court said that the employee failed to show a reasonable accommodation existed at the time.  An accommodation does not require elimination of an essential function of the job.

The court case is a very helpful decision in clarifying whether an employer can insist on having its employees perform the essential functions of a job. Too often, employees suggest accommodations that would have them avoid an essential function of the job altogether. This court case should put a damper on such arguments.

For employers, the case is also a helpful reminder on having clear descriptions on what the essential functions of a job are and being able to explain why the duties are created that way.   Nonetheless, employers should still engage in an interactive process with an employee about whether there are any reasonable accommodations that can be provided.

The Connecticut Appellate Court yesterday released two notable employment law decisions. They won’t become “official” until April 30, 2013, so you have some time to digest them.  I’ll cover one today and leave the other for a future post (though if you’re really curious you can read it here.)

To me, the more interesting of the two is Langello v. West Haven Board of Education, which decided an issue that you would think had long since been decided. But this is Connecticut; appellate court guidance is few and far between.

The issue: How do both the Teacher Tenure Act and Connecticut’s Fair Employment Practices Act (which prohibits discrimination on the basis of, among other reasons, disability) co-exist with each other and what is the interplay between the two?

Why is this important? Because the Teacher Tenure Act provides that a tenured teacher may be discharged for a “disability” or “other due and sufficient cause”.  Thus, put another way, can a school district fire a teacher because she has a disability without violating the state law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability?

To this, the court answers “yes” so long as the proper questions have been answered.

In keeping with the public policy that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability, and our Supreme Court’s analysis of the legislative intent behind § 46a-60 (a) (1), we conclude that any teacher who is terminated pursuant to the Tenure Teacher Act enjoys the protections of the Fair Employment Practices Act.

A contrary conclusion—that a tenured teacher who is discharged from her employment because of her disability pursuant to § 10-151 (d) (4) is outside of the protections of § 46a-60 would thwart the purpose of the Fair Employment Practices Act.

To ensure compliance with the purpose of the Fair Employment Practices Act, a teacher who is discharged for any of the reasons enumerated in § 10-151 (d) must be afforded the protections of § 46a-60. A board of education, if it seeks to terminate a teacher’s employment pursuant to the Teacher Tenure Act for reason of a disability, must follow the mandates of the Fair Employment Practices Act and show that the teacher was unable to perform the essential functions of her profession with or without reasonable accommodation.

As to the application to the case at hand, the court fairly easily disposes of the teacher’s claim that the employer failed to show that she could not perform the essential functions of the job with or without a reasonable accommodation.

What’s the takeaway here?

For school districts, this case is a crucial one. Any attempt to invoke the provisions of the Teacher Tenure Act by terminating a teacher for a disability, should be reviewed carefully to determine if the employee can perform the essential functions of the job with or without a reasonable accommodation. Without that analysis, school boards are leaving themselves open to a challenge of the type raised in this case.