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.

Confession: Back to the Future is my favorite movie (though ask me in two months and I’ll probably say it’s actually Star Wars — employment lawyer’s prerogative).

So, how could I let “Back to the Future” day pass without an employment law-related post!

For those (strange) people who don’t know what I’m talking about — today’s the day that Michael J. Fox (or at least his character “Marty McFly”) travels to in “future” in the Back to the Future trilogy.

Most news outlets are focusing on the lack of hoverboards as a “failed” prediction on the future. (And the Cubs winning the World Series now seems a bit far fetched today too).

But something else that hasn’t been mentioned much — the workplace. There’s a notable scene in Back to the Future Part II in which an older Marty McFly engages in some type of illegal transaction on the evening of October 21, 2015.  He scans a card — seemingly for a black market product.  fired

Only problem? Marty’s boss — Ito Fujitsu — is monitoring the illegal scan.  He immediately sets up a video telephone call with Marty at his home. And tells Marty he’s fired. To reinforce that fact, he sends Marty a fax reading “YOU’RE FIRED!!!” to all the fax machines in Marty’s house.

I remember watching this scene when the movie came out and two things still stand out: 1) It seemed pretty awful to fire someone via telephone call; and, 2) How cool is it that Marty had fax machines in bunch of different rooms!

(I also thought how strange it would be to wear two ties — thankfully that fashion trend went nowhere.)

Now that we’ve reached the date — how does it hold up?

Well, in some ways, not well at all.  Fax machines are nearly extinct and no one has them in various rooms in their house.

But in other ways, I still think we feel the same way about firing someone “over the phone”, or now e-mail — it seems pretty harsh.  Recall the outrage that people felt with Radio Shack laid off people via e-mail nearly a decade ago.

And so, one lesson we can still learn from the movie today? It’s still best to do important employment decisions in person.

And whatever you do, don’t send a fax saying “You’re Fired!!!”  After today, that’s history.