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Employment Blog

Employer’s Failure to Accommodate Needle Phobia Leads to 2.6 Million Dollar ADA Verdict

Authored by Ruder Ware Attorneys
Posted on January 26, 2015
Filed under Employment

Last week, a federal jury in an Americans with Disabilities Act case entered a 2.6 million dollar plaintiff’s verdict in favor of a former Rite Aid Corporation pharmacist who Rite Aid allegedly discharged in response to his inability to administer flu shots. According to court records, the former Rite Aid pharmacist suffered from trypanophobia, which is an extreme fear of needles and procedures involving needles [drawing of blood, receiving and witnessing injections, observing medical procedures]. This phobia is officially recognized in the American Psychiatric Association Diagnostics and Statistical Manual of Health Disorders, 4th Edition (DSM – IV).

According to court records, Rite Aid’s former pharmacist requested an accommodation in response to the conflict between his trypanophobia and Rite Aid’s mandatory immunization training for pharmacists [he allegedly exhibited symptoms of diaphoresis, hypotension, pallor and anxiety as a result of his trypanophobia]. Allegedly, Rite Aid refused to accommodate the pharmacist’s trypanophobia and terminated his employment—which precipitated his federal ADA lawsuit.

Following trial, the jury concluded that trypanophobia is a disability for ADA purposes, that the pharmacist requested a reasonable accommodation, that Rite Aid failed to demonstrate that accommodating the pharmacist’s trypanophobia created an “undue hardship,” and that the pharmacist was entitled to 2.6 million dollars in damages [a copy of the verdict is available here: Rite Aid Jury Verdict]. Rite Aid may choose to appeal this decision.

This case is a good reminder to employers that mental disorders must be taken seriously in the context of requests for accommodations. In my experience, some employers outright dismiss, or significantly discount, the validity of employee mental impairments in the context of claimed job-related limitations.  Unlike many physical impairments, mental impairments often cannot be satisfactorily verified by laypersons—which often leads to unfounded suspicion and ill-conceived strategic decisions. 

Employers need not fear this verdict [although I understand there is a phobia for that — liticaphobia is the fear of lawsuits], but certainly should appreciate the cautionary nature of the decision. Employers are encouraged to lean on qualified medical and legal professionals when faced with the uncertainty that often surrounds an employee’s claimed mental impairment and need for workplace accommodation.