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.

A cab driver, who claims he suffers from cynophobia (a fear of dogs) and who refused to pick up a blind customer with a service dog, has filed a federal lawsuit against his employer for discrimination on account of his disability after he was fired. 

The suit of Ahmad v. Yellow Cab Co., which was filed in federal court yesterday, can be downloaded here. 

The story of the incident was well-documented last year in a various media outlets, including a story on NBC Connecticut.  In that report, Ahmad is quoted as saying the he understood that picking up people with service dogs was part of the job, but still refused to do so anyways because he is afraid of dogs.

I knew he was a blind man and that I am supposed to take him. Absolutely, I am supposed to take him. But what would have happened if I had crashed on the highway? It would have been very bad,” Ahmad said.

Assuming that the plaintiff has a cognizable disability under the ADAAA, the case at first blush seems to put one disability against another.  Does a patron’s need for a service dog trump an employee’s fear of dogs?

But its more than merely a patron’s “need”.  Indeed, the law mandates that guests with service dogs be permitted in all modes of public transportation.  Refusal to do so is a misdemeanor. 

The U.S. Department of Justice has a recently released guidance on service dogs too.  The guidance speaks directly to the issue of fear of dogs. 

Allergies and fear of dogs are not valid reasons for denying access or refusing service to people using service animals. When a person who is allergic to dog dander and a person who uses a service animal must spend time in the same room or facility, for example, in a school classroom or at a homeless shelter, they both should be accommodated by assigning them, if possible, to different locations within the room or different rooms in the facility.

So perhaps the case will also look at another ADA issue: Is picking up a passenger with a service dog an “essential” part of the job?  Given the legal requirement noted above, it would seem so.  And if the cab driver couldn’t do this “essential” function because of his disability with or without a reasonable accommodation, he may not be able to seek protection under the ADA.

We’ve seen a few more cases lately where employees claim that their phobia (say, for example, a fear of bridges) afford them some protection.   If you have that situation, be sure to review the case from an ADA perspective to ensure that you’re in compliance with the law.

Ahmad v. Yellow Cab Company