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American court upholds firing of needle-phobic pharmacist

American court upholds firing of needle-phobic pharmacist

If you had a phobia of flying, you probably wouldn’t become a flight attendant. If you were agrophobic, you probably wouldn’t become a miner.

So you would probably think if you had a phobia of needles (trypanophobia, to give it its proper name), you wouldn’t go into medicine. Nevertheless, having this phobia didn’t stop Mr Stevens from becoming a pharmacist. Indeed, to give Mr Stevens his due, he worked for his employer, a major pharmacy chain in the United States, for 34 years. However, his fear of needles was so great that, as his doctor said, “[h]e would be come diaphoretic, hypotensive and probably faint. Vagal response.” As a result, his doctor advised that Mr Stevens could not “safely administer an injection, since the likelihood that he would faint would be unsafe for the patient and [him]”.

Mr Stevens was eventually fired for his refusal to administer immunisation injections in violation of company policy. He sued and was originally awarded almost $2 million by the courts. However, on appeal, it was found that as administering injections was an essential job function, his dismissal was lawful. There was some discussion as to whether a reasonable accommodation (similar to a reasonable adjustment under English law), could be made, however the court said no accommodation would enable him to perform the essential functions of his job – administering immunization injections.

If this had happened in the UK, depending on how many pharmacists worked in the particular store, it may have been a reasonable adjustment to allow him not to perform injections. However, if there was only one pharmacist role and this required injections to be given to customers, then his dismissal would also likely have been lawful here.