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Stevens v. Rite Aid Corp.

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

March 21, 2017

CHRISTOPHER STEVENS, Plaintiff-Appellee-Cross-Appellant,
v.
RITE AID CORPORATION, DBA Rite Aid Pharmacy, AKA Eckerd Corporation, DBA Rite Aid, Defendant-Appellant-Cross-Appellee.

          Argued: October 6, 2016

         Appeal from the January 27, 2015, judgment and appeal and cross-appeal from the September 23, 2015, post-trial order of the District Court for the Northern District of New York (Thomas J. McAvoy, District Judge) in a case brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act and similar state law. The judgment, entered after a jury trial, awarded substantial damages to the plaintiff on his claims of wrongful termination, retaliation, and failure to accommodate. The post-trial order dismissed the plaintiff's failure-to-accommodate claim, granted a new trial unless plaintiff agreed to a remittitur (later accepted), substantially granted plaintiff's claims for interest, and denied defendant's motion for judgment as a matter of law on plaintiff's wrongful discharge and retaliation claims.

         On the appeal, we reverse the District Court's post-trial denial of Rite Aid's motion for judgment as a matter of law on Stevens' federal and state law wrongful termination and retaliation claims; on the cross-appeal, we affirm the District Court's dismissal of Stevens' failure-to-accommodate claim. We remand for entry of a revised judgment in favor of Rite Aid.

          Allyson N. Ho, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, Dallas, TX (John C. Sullivan, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, Dallas, TX, Michelle Seldin Silverman, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, Princeton, NJ, on the brief), for Appellant-Cross-Appellee Rite Aid Corporation.

          Janet D. Callahan, Hancock Estabrook, LLP, Syracuse, NY (Daniel B. Berman, Robert C. Whitaker, Robert J. Thorpe, Hancock Estabrook, LLP, Syracuse, NY, on the brief), for Appellee-Cross-Appellant Christopher Stevens.

          Before: NEWMAN, LYNCH, and DRONEY, Circuit Judges.

          JON O. NEWMAN, Circuit Judge.

         This appeal and cross-appeal concern a pharmacist who suffers from trypanophobia - fear of needles. The pharmacy where he was employed discharged him because he could not comply with a company policy that required pharmacists to administer immunization injections to customers. That action precipitated a suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq. and similar state law. Rite Aid Corporation ("Rite Aid"), the employer, appeals from the January 27, 2015, judgment entered by the District Court for the Northern District of New York (Thomas J. McAvoy, District Judge) awarding Christopher Stevens, the pharmacist, substantial damages after a jury trial. Rite Aid also appeals and Stevens cross-appeals from the District Court's September 23, 2015, post-trial order. That order dismissed the plaintiff's failure-to-accommodate claim, granted a new trial unless plaintiff agreed to a remittitur (later accepted), substantially granted plaintiff's claims for interest, and denied defendant's motion for judgment as a matter of law on plaintiff's wrongful discharge and retaliation claims.

         Background

         In 2011, Rite Aid, and other large pharmacy chains, started requiring pharmacists to perform immunizations in order to fill an unmet need for vaccinations in the healthcare market. In April 2011, Rite Aid revised its job description to require pharmacists to hold a valid immunization certificate [1] and included a reference to immunizations in the list of "essential duties and responsibilities" for pharmacists.

         Before his termination in August 2011, Stevens worked in upstate New York as a full-time pharmacist for Rite Aid and its predecessor pharmacies for 34 years. He was responsible for handling medications and counseling customers regarding their medications. In March 2011, Stevens received an e-mail from his district manager, William Spink, informing him that Rite Aid was going to require all pharmacists to give immunization injections to customers.

         Stevens obtained a note from his treating physician, Dr. Mark Warfel, stating that Stevens is "needle phobic and cannot administer immunization by injection." Stevens wrote a letter to Spink explaining that his trypanophobia causes him to experience "lightheadedness, paleness, and a feeling that I may faint" and that, as a result he "would never even consider trying to become an immunizing pharmacist." Stevens also stated that he believed his condition was a covered disability under the ADA, and requested that Rite Aid provide him with a reasonable accommodation.

         In May, William Farley, a Rite Aid Human Resources manager, faxed Stevens a list of questions for his doctor to answer regarding Stevens' needle phobia, including how the phobia would manifest itself if Stevens were to administer immunizations by injection and whether there were any accommodations that would enable Stevens to perform injections. Dr. Warfel's response stated that if Stevens were to administer an injection, "[h]e would become diaphoretic, hypotensive and probably faint. Vagal response." [2] Dr. Warfel further advised that Stevens could not safely administer an injection, since the likelihood that he would faint would be "unsafe for the patient and Mr. Stevens."

         In August, Rite Aid officials told Stevens that the ADA did not apply to trypanophobia, that Rite Aid was not required to accommodate Stevens, and that Stevens would lose his job unless he successfully completed immunization training. Stevens later told Spink that he would not be able to complete the training. On August 23, a Rite Aid official gave Stevens a termination letter, informing him that he was ...


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